Sheila McLeod. A Heroine of the Back Blocks - Guy Boothby - ebook

Sheila McLeod. A Heroine of the Back Blocks ebook

Guy Boothby

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„It was raining a little before noon, and now, standing on the veranda of my station, looking at the blue lagoon with the edge of a boiling surf, I was lucky not only to have one of the best paintings in the South Pacific, but to clearly smell the sweet aroma of flowers jasmine and wild lime in the jungle that covered the hillside behind me. I went to one end of the veranda and stopped watching a group of local girls who were preparing a tappa at the nearest hut – then to the other, and looked into my crowded copra shed and from it to the bare shelves of the large trading room opposite. „

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Contents

Prologue: Vakalavi in the Samoan Group

Old Barranda on the Cargoo River, South-western Queensland

How I First Learned My Love for Sheilah

Whispering Pete

The Race

Consequences

Colin McLeod

I Propose to Sheilah

A Visit from Whispering Pete

Sheilah’€™s Loyalty

The Trial

How I Escaped

Prologue

Vakalavi in the Samoan Group

Looking back on it now I can recall every circumstance connected with that day just as plainly as if it had all happened but yesterday. In the first place, it was about the middle of the afternoon, and the S.E. trade, which had been blowing lustily since ten o’clock, was beginning to die away according to custom.

There had been a slight shower of rain in the forenoon, and now, standing in the verandah of my station looking across the blue lagoon with its fringe of boiling surf, it was my good fortune not only to have before me one of the finest pictures in the South Pacific, but to be able to distinctly smell the sweet perfume of the frangipani blossom and wild lime in the jungle which clothed the hillside behind me. I walked to one end of the verandah and stood watching a group of native girls making tappa outside the nearest hut–then to the other, and glanced into my overflowing copra shed, and from it at the bare shelves of the big trade room opposite. The one, as I say, was full, the other sadly empty, and for more than a week I had been bitterly lamenting the non-arrival of the company’s schooner, which was supposed to visit the island once every six months in order to remove my gains and to supply me with sufficient trade to carry me safely through the next half-year. The schooner was now ten days overdue, and I had made sure she would put in an appearance that morning; but the wind was failing, and it was, therefore, ten chances to one against our seeing her before the next forenoon. I was more than a little disappointed, if only on the score of the company I should have had, for you must understand that it was nearly six months since I had seen a white face, and even then the face was only that of a missionary. But, in common fairness, I must confess that that missionary was as different to the usual run of his cloth as chalk is to cheese–a good fellow in every way, not a bit bumptious, or la-di-dardy, or fond of coming the Oxford scholar-and-a-gentleman touch, but a real white man from top to toe. And my first meeting with him was as extraordinary as anyone could imagine, or wish for. It’s a yarn against myself, but as it shows you what queer beasts we men are, I may as well tell you about it. It happened in this way:–

About ten o’clock one fine spring morning I was coming down the hillside behind my house, and, according to custom, pulled up at the Big Plateau and looked out to sea. To the north and south nothing was in sight, but to the eastward there was a tiny blotch on the horizon which gradually developed into a small fore-and-aft schooner of about fifty tons. When she was level with the island she worked steadily up the reef until she found the passage through the surf; then, having edged her way into the lagoon, came to an anchor opposite my house. Seeing that she was going to send a boat ashore, and suspecting some sort of missionary mischief from the cut of her jib, down I went to the beach and got ready to receive her.

The craft she was sending ashore was a double-ended surf boat, and a well-built one at that, pulled by two Solomon boys, and steered by a white man in a queer kind of helmet that I believe they call a “solar topee’ in India. The man in the helmet brought her up in first-class style, and was preparing to beach her just in front of where I stood when I held up my hand in warning.

“Who are you, and what do you want here?’ I asked, looking him up and down.

“I’m the new missionary at Futuleima,’ says he, as bold as brass, “and as I had a couple of spare days at my disposal I thought I would come across and talk to the people on this island. Have you anything to say against it?’

“Not much,’ I answered, feeling my dander rising at the cool way in which he addressed me, “but what I do say I mean.’

“And what is it you mean, my friend?’ he asked.

“I mean that you don’t set foot ashore if I can prevent it,’ I replied. “You understand me once and for all. I’m the boss of this island, and I’m not going to have any of your nonsense talked to my men. I’m civilising ’em on my own lines, and I won’t have you interfering and shoving your nose in where it ain’t wanted.’

“I’m afraid you speak your mind with more candour than courtesy,’ he said, mopping his forehead with a snow-white pocket-handkerchief which he had taken from his pocket.

“You think so, do you?’ I cried. “Well, you just set as much as your little toe on this beach and you’ll see that I mean it!’

“So I’m to choose between fighting you and going away with my errand unaccomplished?’ he answered, still as cool as a cucumber. “Do I take you properly?’

“That is my meaning, and I reckon it’s a bigger one than you can digest,’ I replied, like the hot-tempered fool I was. “Let me tell you, you’re not the first of your breed that has tasted my fist and gone away with his appetite satisfied.’

“Then since it is to be the Church Militant here on Earth, and there’s no other way out of it, I suppose I must agree to your proposal,’ he said, after a moment’s thought, and forthwith jumped out of the boat on to the beach. “But let it be somewhere where my boatmen cannot see. I don’t know that the example would be altogether beneficial to them.’

As he stood on the beach before me, Heaven knows it was a poor enough figure of a man he made. He was not as big as me by a head and a half; for I stand close on six feet in my socks, and am bigger in the beam than the ordinary run of men; besides which, I am always, of necessity, in the pink of condition. To think, therefore, that such a little whipper-snapper should contemplate fighting me was too absurd. I stood and stared at him.

“You don’t mean to say you intend to put your fists up?’ I cried, letting him see how astonished I was.

“That I do!’ he said, and bidding his men wait for him he led the way up the path to the jungle at the back of the station house. “Since you deem it necessary that I should introduce myself to you in such a strange fashion, I feel it incumbent upon me to do so. Besides, I want to teach you a lesson you will not forget.’ Then, stopping short in his walk, he felt the muscle of my right arm critically and smiled. “You’ll be a man worth fighting,’ he said, and continued his walk.

Well, here I was in a mighty curious position, as you will understand. Having seen the plucky way he had jumped ashore and taken me up, right in my teeth, so to speak, I felt I had made a precious fool of myself in being so ready with my challenge. He was a man and not a monkey, like most of his fraternity, and he might have converted every nigger in the South Pacific for all I should have cared. I wouldn’t have stopped a man like him for all the world, for I reckon he wouldn’t have taught ’em anything shady for the life of him. But there was no hope for it now, so I walked up the path beside him, as meek as a new-born lamb, till we came to an open patch at the base of a small waterfall.

“This should suit our purpose, I think,’ he said, taking off his helmet and coat and placing them beneath a tree. “If you’re quite ready, let us get to business.’

“Hold on,’ I cried, “this won’t do. I’ve changed my mind, and I’m not going to fight you after all! Missionary or no missionary, you’re a man, and a proper sort of man too; and what’s more, you shall waltz every nigger on this island backwards and forwards in and out of Purgatory as often as you please, for all I’ll say you nay.’

“That’s very kind of you,’ he answered, at the same time looking me in the face in a curious sort of fashion. “Nevertheless, for the good of your own soul, I intend that you shall fight me, and at once.’

“I won’t, and that’s the end of it,’ I said.

“You will, and immediately,’ he answered quietly. Then, walking up to me, he drew back his arm and hit me a blow in the face. For a second I was too much surprised to do anything at all, but, recovering myself, I lifted my fist and drove it home under his jaw. He went down like a ninepin and rolled almost over, but before I could say “knife’ he was up and at me again. After that I didn’t stop to consider, but just let him have it, straight from the shoulder, as fast as he could take it. Take it he did, like a glutton, and asked for more, but it was sickening work for all that, and though I did my best to give him satisfaction, I found I could put no heart in it.

When I had sent him flying head over heels in the grass for the sixth time, and his face was a good deal more like an underdone beefsteak than anything else, I could stand it no longer, and I told him so. But it made no difference; he got on to his feet and ran at me again, this time catching me a good one on the left jaw. In sheer self-defence I had to send him down, though I loathed myself as a beast of the worst kind for doing it. But even then he was not satisfied. Once more he came in at me and once more I had to let him have it. By this time he could hardly see out of his eyes, and his face was streaming with blood.

“That’s enough,’ I cried, “I’ll have no more of it. I’m a big bully, and you’re the best plucked little fellow this side of Kingdom Come! I’ll not lay another finger on you, even if you knock me into a jelly trying to make me. Get up and shake hands.’

He got on to his feet and held out his hand.

“All things considered, this is the queerest bit of proselytizing I have ever done,’ he said. “But somehow I think I’ve taught you a lesson, my friend!’

“You have,’ I answered, humbly, “and one that I’ll never forget if I live to be a hundred. I deserve to be kicked.’

“No! You’re a man, and a better man, if I’m not mistaken, than you were half-an-hour ago.’

He said no more on the subject then, but went over to the little pool below the waterfall and bathed his face. I can tell you I felt pretty rocky and mean as I watched him. And any man who knows my reputation among the Islands will tell you that’s a big admission for Jim Heggarstone to make.

After that he stayed with me until his bruises disappeared; and when he went away I had made a firm friend of him, and told him all the queer story that I have set myself to tell you in this book. Ever since that time he’s been one of my staunchest and truest pals on earth, and all I can say is if there’s any man has got a word to say against the Rev. William Carson–Otway, he had better not say it in my hearing–that’s all.

But in telling you all this I’ve been wandering off my course, and now I must get back to the afternoon of the day when I was awaiting the arrival of the schooner Wildfowl with a cargo of trade from Apia. As I have told you the wind had almost dropped, and for that reason I had given up all hope of seeing anything of her before morning. But, as it happened, I was mistaken, for just about sundown she hove in sight, rounded the bit of headland that sheltered the bay on the eastern side, and, having safely made the passage, brought up in the lagoon. Her arrival put me in the best of spirits, for after all those months spent alone with natives, I was fairly sick for a talk with a white man again. Long before her anchor was down I was on the beach getting my boat into the water, and by the time the rattle of the cable in the hawse-hole had died away, I was alongside and clambering aboard. I shook hands with the skipper, who was standing aft near the deck-house, then glanced at another man whose back was towards me. By-and-by he swung round and looked me in the face. Then I saw that it was Dan Nicholson of Salfulga Island, on the other side–the biggest blackguard and bully in the Pacific, and I don’t care where you look for the next. An ugly smile came over his face as he recognised me, and then he said very politely–

“And pray how do we find our dear friend, the Rev. James Heggarstone, today?’

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