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Chapter XVI The Flight of the Kanápu

ON further careful study of Carteret's book and chart, the mind of Fletcher Christian was greatly disturbed, for he knew that there was much to fear if the position of Pitcairn had been wrongly laid down. The currents, too, in this part of the world were but little understood by those few navigators who had sailed among the islands; indeed, the natives themselves were far better informed of both the winds and currents of Eastern Polynesia than were the few European voyagers among the various groups since the days of Carteret and Cook.

Carteret had laid down the centre of Pitcairn in lat. 20° 2′ south, and long. 133° 21′ west; but although Christian was fairly confident of sighting the island by keeping a careful look-out and heaving-to at night when he got near it, he felt that his limited knowledge of the winds and currents might lead to prolonged and tedious search.

For twenty-one days after leaving Fakarava the Bounty sailed south-easterly. Several low-lying atolls

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were sighted, but no sign of high land had been seen; yet, by Christian's calculations (only revealed to Young, Smith, and McCoy), he had twice sailed over the position assigned to the island by Carteret. His misgivings that a strong current had set him too far to the eastward were daily growing stronger. His only chronometer, through an accident, had been rendered useless, and besides this the weather latterly was gloomy and the sun seldom visible. The last land had been sighted eighteen days after leaving Fakarava, and Talalu and Tairoa-Maina, who from the break of day were continuously aloft on the lookout, assured him on that day that no land lay further to the south-east but Afitā and a little sandy island called Oeno, about half a day's sail to the northward. Small as this island was, they declared that the clamour of the sea-birds, whose resting-place it was, would reveal its presence even on the darkest night; and this alone somewhat reassured him in the hope that he had not drifted past it or Pitcairn in the darkness. A day's sail further to the eastward was another island which they said was called Fenua-manu;note this, too, was the home of millions of sea-birds, whose voices stifled the beating of the surf upon the reefs, so great were their numbers.

With his chin upon his hands, Fletcher Christian gazed moodily at the chart before him. Mahina, who by the cabin door was watching him with tender interest, heard him sigh wearily. Stepping up to him, she pressed her cool hand to his forehead, and leant her cheek against his in loving sympathy.

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In the great cabin no sound broke the stillness save the swish and swirl of the ship's wake as she slipped through the water; and presently Christian, drawing the girl's slender figure to a seat beside him, pointed to the chart.

“Mahina,” he said, “you and three of my white comrades alone know that the ship hath twice sailed over the place where this island of Afitā should have been; and no sign have we yet seen, not even a drifting coconut or a piece of wood.”

The girl's eyes filled with tears; for a few moments her bosom heaved, and she tried to speak without showing her emotion; and Christian, moody and preoccupied as he was, knew by her voice that she felt for and sympathised with him.

“Kirisiani, I too have looked and looked and prayed to Oro and Tane to guide the ship to Afitā, but now I begin to fear that the gods have turned aside from me.”

He pressed her hand in silence, and was about to bid her come with him on deck when the murmuring of voices at the door of the great cabin broke in upon them, and presently Talalu, Tairoa-Maina, and two other natives asked leave to speak with him.

“Let them wait awhile,” he said sullenly, although knowing that in the Tubuaian chief and his Tahitian comrade he had two firm friends, who with Smith, Young, and McCoy would stand by him to the last. For nearly half an hour he remained communing with

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himself and endeavouring to think out some other course for the future, should his search be still unrewarded on the following day.

Already the long voyage had had a bad effect upon most of the mutineers, and only that morning he had noticed the gloomy faces and sullen manner of the men when changing the ship's course another point to the southward. Some of the Tahitians were suffering from the effects of the strange food which, for weeks, they had been forced to live upon, and the confinement told seriously on their health and spirits. Yet, despite this, their regard for Mahina, and their faith in, and respect for Christian were unbroken, and they would have endured the most prolonged hardships rather than let either imagine that they were repining. With some of the white seamen, however, these feelings were wanting. Although there was no open expression of discontent, more than one murmured at the delay, declaring that Christian and Young, either through ignorance or design, were not doing their duty to their associates.

It was no wonder, therefore, that Christian himself grew day by day more anxious and less confident of finding this island of Carteret's. True, the place was small and solitary, and, unless his reckoning was very exact, might easily be missed. Twice had he sailed across Carteret's position, and nothing had rewarded his search; and now he felt that another day's fruitless quest would assure him either that his observations had been incorrect or that the island had disappeared by some convulsion of nature. Worn out

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with anxiety, with constant watching, and his own sad emotions, nothing but the devotion and tender love of Mahina had kept him from ending it all with a loaded pistol which he always carried in his pocket.

He pushed the chart away wearily, and was about to go on deck when Mahina, who had remained, touched his arm, and with a timid, beseeching look asked him to let Tairoa-Maina and the other natives have speech with him.

“Come in, friends,” he said, in kindly tones.

The Tubuaian chief, who, with Talalu and two other natives, had been patiently waiting at the cabin door, came in, sat silently down, and waited permission to speak.

“Speak, my brother,” said Mahina to Tairoa-Maina. “My husband is wearied, and would go out upon the deck to breathe the cool wind of the night.”

Pleased at the relationship assigned to him by Christian's wife, the handsome young Tubuaian looked at them with affectionate regard, and said he and those with him desired to speak of something in their minds, at which they prayed him not to be angered, “for,” he added, with a grave smile, “we men of brown skin are but fools on the great ocean when the sky is dull and there is neither sun nor moon nor stars to guide us. But with the clever white men it is different; they are full of wisdom to guide a ship, even if there be neither sun by day nor stars by night. Yet in some little things we have wisdom, and that is why we now ask that thou, Kirisiani, will listen to us—who are thy friends.”

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“That I well know,” said the mutineer, placing his hand on Tairoa's shoulder. “Speak, my brother.”

“Thou knowest, Kirisiani, that for many days I have climbed the masts and watched, so that I might be the first to see the land of Afitā; and when it grew dark I have waited upon the deck and listened to hear if the sound of beating surf came over the sea. Last night, as Talalu and I lay on the deck, and the ship rose and fell and made no sound, we saw first one and then another of the birds called kanápu note fly swiftly over the ship towards the westward. As we watched there came another, and then another, and then a flock of twenty or more, and these too all flew swiftly westwards, for we saw their shadows darken the bright strip of water that shot out from the dying moon. Then, as we lay down again, there came to our minds that on Oeno, the little sandy islet but a day's sail from Afitā, there do the kanápu breed in the thick puka scrub which groweth in the sand.”

“True,” said Mahina quickly; “I have heard my mother say that on Oeno the cries of the kanápu when they come home to roost at night drown the noise of the breaking surf.”

“Aye,” said the Tubuaian, “and so have I been told. Yet only at night; for in the daytime they fly to the lagoon of Fenua-manu, where they find many fish. We talked of this as we lay on the deck, and I desired to come and tell thee, Kirisiani, of the flight of the birds, but feared that thou wouldst chide me

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for doubting thy skill to guide the ship. But I have heard some of those with us say some little things.”

Christian smiled bitterly. “They speak truly, my friend; I cannot find this land of Afitā.”

Leaning over towards him and placing his hand on Christian's, the Tubuaian continued: “But this morning, when the lower half of the sun was still buried in the sea, we saw many, many kanápu and katafa note flying swiftly towards it, and Afitā lieth between Oeno and Fenua-manu.”

Christian's eyes sparkled. “Thanks, my good friend. I see now thy meaning. For two days have I thought that the ship hath come too far towards the rising sun, and that the place we seek lieth westward.”

“Even so think we,” answered Talalu, “for the current runneth strong towards the rising sun, and the kanápu and the katafa went westward to rest.”

For a little while Christian considered. Oeno, the sandy island which both Mahina and Tairoa asserted was but a day's sail north and west from Afitā, was not marked in any of the two or three charts he possessed, but Ducie Island, the “Fenua-manu,” or Island of Birds, of the natives, was, and lay due east of Oeno. And he knew the natives relied much upon simple indications to find their position when making long voyages at sea. He soon made up his mind.

“We will turn the ship to follow the kanápu,” he said.

The natives sprang to their feet, and with animated countenances waited for him to precede them on deck.

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The Bounty, with the gentle trade-wind filling her sails, was steering an E.N.E. course, when Christian, with Mahina and the others, came on deck. Sitting near the wheel was Young, who had charge of the watch.

“Young,” said Christian, “I am convinced that if this island is in existence it is to the west of us.”

“So Alrema says,” nonchalantly replied the young man; “but I didn't think it worth while mentioning it.”

“What do you say? Shall we keep her away?”

“Certainly—why not? As we cannot find it ourselves by the chart let us go west by all means.”

“Hands to the braces, men!” called out Christian after a moment's hesitation. “We are going to run down to the westward.”

In a few minutes the yards were hauled round, and the Bounty was heading west by north. Telling Talalu and Tairoa to go aloft, Christian turned to Young and Smith and related the incident of the previous night.

About four o'clock in the afternoon, just as Christian was about to lie down for an hour, there burst from Talalu on the fore top-gallant yard a cry that sent a thrill through the hearts of every one on board—

Te fenua no Afitā!” (“The land of Afitā!”).

There was a sudden rush aloft, Christian himself ascending the main rigging slightly in advance of McCoy, Quintal, and Young.

“There it is, sir,!” said Quintal excitedly, pointing almost right ahead.

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Then as the others saw the faint blue outline of a pyramidal peak rising from the sea, a cheer broke from them, and the people on the deck took it up and repeated it again and again.

“Thank God!” said Christian to Edward Young. Instinctively their hands met, and in silence they all gazed intently at the little spot, which at that far distance no eye but that of a seaman or a native could distinguish from a cone-shaped cloud.