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Chapter II The Cutting of the Cable

SCARCE two cables' lengths away from the dark fringe of palms which lined the white, shimmering beach, the Bounty lay motionless upon the placid, reef-sheltered waters of the quiet little bay, her hempen cable hanging straight up and down from hawse-pipe to anchor, fifteen fathoms below her forefoot. From the cabin windows a light in the captain's berth shot a dulled gleam upon the darkened water under her cumbrous stern, which the bright rays of moonlight had not yet touched, for though the moon was full it was not high, and the ship lay head to the south-eastward, with her bows toward the verdured slopes of Orohena Mountain, whose mist-capped summit towered seven thousand feet to the sky. Aloft, the ship's black spars stood silhouetted against the snow-white canvas bent in readiness for her departure; for in a day or two her long stay at Tahiti would come to an end, and the bows of the little barque would be turned southward for her voyage to the West Indies.

In the great cabin, the chief entrance to which was

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from the main deck, the moon-rays sent a stream of light through the open doors, and showed a strange sight to see on shipboard.

Instead of being fitted up like a King's ship, or indeed as a merchantman, the whole cabin space was filled with young breadfruit plants. Reaching fore and aft from the cabin doors to the transoms were five tiers of stout shelving, built to receive the pots in which the plants were placed; while sloping upwards towards the after part of the quarter deck from the transoms themselves were five tiers more. Nearly all the plants were fully-leaved, and a stray moonbeam now and then pierced its way through them to strike against and illumine the dark mahogany doors of the rooms on either side of this strangely furnished cabin.

Nearly nine months before, the Bounty, of 215 tons burden, had left Spithead for Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh, who had been sailing-master with the great navigator Cook in the Resolution. The ship which Bligh now commanded was specially fitted to convey specimens of the breadfruit tree from Tahiti—the Otaheite of Cook—to the West Indies, in the hope that the tree would there take root and flourish and furnish as bountiful a food supply to the negroes of those islands as it did to the light, copper-coloured people of the isles of the Pacific.

Of the forty-six persons who sailed from Spithead in the Bounty, all, save Fletcher Christian, the senior master's mate, and a guard of four men who were on shore, were at that moment on board; and all, except the anchor watch, were deep in slumber.

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Walking to and fro on the forepart of the upper deck was Edward Young, a square-built, dark-complexioned man of twenty-two, and midshipman in charge of the watch. For nearly an hour he had thus paced the deck, glancing now at cloud-capped Orohena, six miles away, and now at the white tents of the shore party with the dark figure of the sentry in the foreground. Presently he stopped and looked intently towards another part of the beach where, an hour before, he had seen two figures seated upon a canoe which was drawn up on the hard, white sand; they were gone, but his quick eye discerned the smaller of the two disappear among the coconut groves towards the village of Papawa, while the taller person walked quickly over to the largest of the four tents and entered it.

“Ah,” he said to himself, and an amused smile flitted over his sallow features, “Master Fletcher and Mahina, as I thought. He's badly love-smitten with that girl … no wonder he doesn't grumble at doing duty over the breadfruit plants on shore, with such a woman as that to sit by his side and charm him with her sweet prattle.… Better to be at that than doing this cursed dog-trot up and down in the moon-light … and yet 'tis dangerous … aye, as dangerous for him as it is for me to linger among these people so long.”

He sighed, and then baring his left arm, looked at a name tatooed upon it lengthwise; then with an angry gesture of contempt, pulled down his sleeve, and resumed his walk to and fro.

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“Dangerous! Aye, indeed it is! Else why should I, a King's officer, and as proud a man as Fletcher Christian—whom I call a fool—commit such folly as this? What would my fine uncle say did he know that I had gone so far as to promise this girl, whose name is on my arm, never to leave her. And though I do leave her, is it less dishonourable for me to beguile her with lies because my skin is white and hers is brown? Well, in a week or so, poor Alrema will have to learn to forget me.”

A cool breath of air touched his cheek, and looking shoreward he saw the plumèd palm-tops swaying gently to and fro; then again a smart puff rippled the glassy surface of the water between the ship and the shore and swept seaward; and Young saw the black wall of a rain squall come fleeting down from the dark shadow of the mountain.

Calling to the watch to stand-by, the young officer picked up his oil-skin, which one of the men brought him, put it on, and waited for the squall to strike the ship. Quickly it loomed down upon the line of palms, the black cloud paling to a misty white as it drew nearer; then it rustled, then fiercely shook the waving branches and drenched them with an ice-cold shower ere it hummed and whistled through the Bounty's cordage and sent her sharply astern, to tauten up her cable as rigid as an iron bar.

“Pretty stiff while it lasts, Tom,” said one of the anchor watch to a messmate, as, ten minutes afterwards, the tail end of the squall passed and the bright moonlight again played upon the soaking decks.

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“Damme, but I'd like to see a stiffer one come along and part the cable, eh?”

As the droning hum of the squall ceased and the palm branches hung pendulous to rest again, a woman, nude, except for the narrow girdle of leaves around her waist, raised herself from the foot of a coconut tree behind which she had crouched, and looked at the ship. In her right hand was an open clasp knife. She leant her back against the tree and gazed steadily at the Bounty for nearly a minute, then with an angry exclamation cast the knife from her into the sea.

“Fool that I was! Why did I not cut the rope through? Even though the young Arii had seen me he would not have raised his hand to harm me, for he too would gladly see the ship cast away and broken upon the reef, so that he need not leave my cousin Alrema.”

An hour later, when daylight broke, Edward Young, after calling the ship's company, again went to the bows to take a look at the cable. It was his last duty before reporting to his relief that all was well, and then turning in. As he peered over the low bows of the vessel he saw the hemp cable stretching away down into the clear depths of the calm water. In a moment his sailor's eye saw that all the strands of the cable but one were parted.

His sallow face turned white, then flushed again, and quickly walking aft he knocked at the door of the state room occupied by Lieutenant William Bligh.

“Who is it?” inquired a sharp, imperious voice; then ere the young man had given his name the cabin

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door opened and a man of medium height, little more than thirty years old, stood facing the midshipman. His features were clear cut and refined and of singular whiteness—remarkable in one whose occupation was the sea—and his complexion contrasted strikingly with the jet black of his hair.

“The cable is nearly chafed through, sir, or the strands have parted. There was a strong squall just before daylight and the ship strained very heavily upon it. I think——”

“Keep your opinions to yourself. You are a damned careless fellow, and not fit even to keep anchor watch. Where is it chafed?”

“About a fathom below the water, sir,” answered the young man with an unsteady voice and an angry gleam in his dark eyes. “When I looked just now it was tautened out, and I saw that only one strand remained.”

“Bah,” said the commander with a contemptuous laugh; “and you have the audacity to attempt to screen your carelessness by telling me it has chafed—a couple of fathoms down from the hawse-pipe and in fifteen fathoms of water! The fact is, some of the natives have been off in a canoe and cut it under your nose. You ought to have prevented it. Were you asleep on your watch, Mr. Young? Answer me quickly.”

“I was not, sir,” answered the young man quietly, steadying his voice; “and I will swear that no canoe has come near the ship since I took charge of the deck. I believe she brought up to her anchor so suddenly

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during the squall that the jerk caused the cable to part.”

“That will do. I will see to this matter myself. You are all alike—every one of you. There is not an officer in the ship that I can trust. Order my boat away.”

The angry, red flush in the commander's pale cheeks and the steady glitter in his light blue eyes boded ill to the young officer, whose own dark features were dyed deep with repressed passion; but by a powerful effort he overcame the desire to hurl back his superior officer's taunts, and saluting the captain with a hand which trembled with rage, he withdrew.

In a quarter of an hour Bligh stepped out of his boat on to the beach. Before he had walked a dozen paces he was met with smiles of welcome by Moana and Tinā, two of the leading chiefs, as had ever been the case during the many weeks of the Bounty's stay at the island.

But instead of the outstretched hand of friendship the angry officer gave them but a cold inclination of his head, and passed them by. At the entrance to the principal tent stood Fletcher Christian, who saluted as the commander approached.

“Mr. Christian,” and the moment the master's mate heard the sharp, fierce ring in his captain's tones, his jaw set firmly and his eye looked steadily into Bligh's, “Mr. Christian, the cable has been cut. Most providentially, however, despite the criminal negligence of Mr. Young, the officer of the watch, one strand was not severed. That, fortunately, held

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the ship; otherwise she would now be lying on the reef. I am determined that the culprit shall be found and made an example of—as, by God! he shall.”

“Very good, sir. Shall I send word for Tinā and the other chiefs to come to you?”

“Why so, sir? What reason have you to jump to the conclusion that this piece of villainy is the work of the natives?”

“I cannot imagine, sir, who else should be suspected.”

“That is a matter of opinion. I have mine. But as you have made the suggestion I will at least put your uncalled-for suspicions to the test of investigation.”

“Pardon me, sir——” began Christian, when Bligh cut him short with an imperious gesture.

“Send for Tinā.”

In another minute a tall, stout, but handsome native whose speaking countenance expressed the most timid deference and respect, joined the captain and Christian.

“Tinā,” said Bligh, fixing his keen eyes upon the chief's face, which already showed the deepest concern, “what does this mean? My ship's cable has been cut. Some of your people have done it. Let them be found instantly.”

Like the simple child of nature that he was, the chief clasped his hands beseechingly together, and the quick tears welled up into his dark eyes ere he could speak.

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“What man is there of mine, oh friend of Tutinote and friend of Tinā, who would do thee or thine such wrong as this?” and then with the utmost distress depicted on his face he beckoned to him a fine, handsome woman of about thirty, and hurriedly spoke a few words to her. As she quickly walked away to do his bidding, he turned to Bligh, and in pleading accents besought him to wait a little till his wife Aitia returned.

The captain of the Bounty nodded, seated himself upon a stool which the sentry brought to him, and waited. The chief's house was but a short distance from the tents and soon the woman returned carrying with her a framed picture of a naval officer. It was a portrait of Captain Cook, painted by Webber in 1777, which the great navigator had presented to the Tahitians, and which they treated with as much reverence as if it were a god.

“See,” said the chief, taking the picture from Aitia's hand, and the accents of perfect truth rang in his voice, “see, this is Tuti,” and he held it out towards the two officers; “would I, Tinā, whom he knew as Umunote his friend, and whose eyes love to look upon this, his face which speaketh not, would I tell thee lies? Nay, oh chief, it is my mind that none of my people have done this thing; but yet who can tell the wickedness that cometh into the hearts of men at times? And so now will I speak and seek if there be a man among my people with such an evil heart, and if there be then will I myself slay him before

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thee, so that the bitterness that is in my heart and thine shall die away and be forgotten.”

And then, before the officer could frame a reply to the chief's impassioned speech, Aitia was at his feet, the tears streaming down her face while she repeated her husband's protestations of love and affection for all who came from the land of Peretane.

The earnest manner of the chief had its effect upon the quick, impulsive temper of Bligh—a man who could change in a moment from the violence of intemperate passion to the most winning amiability of manner.

In more gentle tones he replied that he was satisfied that Tinā would do his best to discover who had cut the cable, although if the culprit were found he hoped he would not go so far in punishing him as to take his life. Then he turned to Christian, and altering the suave tone in which he had addressed the chief, curtly ordered him to take the boat's crews and load the boats with plants.

Merely touching his hat, the master's mate repeated the order to the coxswain of the boat near by and turned away.

In an instant Bligh's pale cheek flushed angrily, and he sprang to his feet.

“What the devil do you mean by receiving my order in that manner? Why don't you answer me when I address you? By heavens, sir, I will teach you the respect due to your superior officer!”

Christian turned and faced him; and Bligh, hot and furious as was his mood now, could not but notice

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the repressed passion in his eyes and the paleness that blanched his tanned cheeks, and realise that Fletcher Christian was not a man to drive to desperation.

For a moment the younger man did not answer, then the pallor of his countenance purpled with the sudden rush of blood to his face, the thick black eyebrows came together and his forehead showed two deep furrows as he replied—and in his voice there was no attempt to disguise the bitterness of heart within him—

“I treat you, sir, with all the respect that the rules of the Service demand; with the same courtesy”—and here his tones rang with contemptuous sarcasm—“I answer you as you show to me. Nothing, sir, shall induce me to forget that I am compelled by my duty to adopt that courtesy and respect. But, sir, beyond that I will take care to be no more civil to you than your treatment of me demands or justifies.”

“Beware, sir; you are treading on dangerous ground—you are mutinous! I've half a mind to make a prisoner of you and keep you under arrest until we reach England. By heavens, sir, I'll stand none of your insolence and misconduct! You and every other officer of the ship shall be brought up to the mark and learn your duties.”

But the master's mate made no reply, and walked quietly away after the boat's crew; and Bligh, his frame trembling with passion, went towards the house of Tinā the chief.

Aided by the willing hands of the natives, men and women, who had stood by listening with deep concern

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to the angry discussion between the two officers, the boats' crews soon loaded their boats, and Christian was left alone. Suddenly he felt a hand placed upon his and a voice murmured—

“Kirisiani, dost know who cut the rope?”

He started, and turned to meet the beautiful face of the girl he had talked with during the night.

“Hush, Mahina, tell me not, else must I tell his name to the captain—and that means death.”

She laughed. “Thou knowest that it was I who did it. And yet tell of it if thou so desirest. What is death to me, my beloved, if thou leavest me? Listen —I will tell thee all. So that I might keep thee near me always, and my eyes look into thine, from sunrise to dark, and my hand lie in thine through the silence of the night, I swam to the ship as the wind and rain swept down from the dark valleys of Orohena, and cut the rope.”

“Mahina, Mahina, 'twas well for thee that the chief of the ship is no friend of mine—even now hot words passed between us—else would I tell him 'twas thee. With us, who are servants of the King of Britain, no woman's love must count—our love to him is first of all. Forget that thou hast ever seen me.”

She flung her arms round his neck and drew his face down to hers. “Thou art mine—if thou leavest in the ship then will I curse thee and die.”

Ere he could say more, with an angry sob she had gone.