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Chapter V The Last Straw

FOR thirteen days the Bounty had sailed westward over a placid sea, the light south-east trades which filled her canvas scarce causing more than a noiseless ripple under her forefoot. On the morning of the fourteenth day she sailed through a cluster of low-lying, richly-verdured islands—the Namuka Group, and dropped her anchor in ten fathoms, in the clear, motionless waters of a reef-enclosed spot off the main island. The day was beautifully fine but intensely hot, and the dying wind gave the ship scarcely way enough to bring her to an anchor.

In a very short time Bligh had opened communication with the natives of Namuka—a fierce, muscular race, who, however, professed friendship, agreeing to let him procure such supplies as he wanted from the island, and promising their assistance in wooding and watering the ship. The calm and dignified manner of the commander seemed to impress the savage, intractable, and treacherous Tongans as it had the gentle

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and kindly-natured Tahitians; and Bligh again showed those peculiar phases of his character which made him treat even the most dangerous natives with humanity and forbearance, and yet toward his officers and crew behave with undeserved, terrible severity.

As soon as the captain returned on board, in sharp, fretful tones he ordered the boats away; one under the command of Mr. Nelson, the botanist, and another with Christian in charge, to wood and water the ship.

For some hours the work went on without interference, till the natives, all of whom were armed with spears, clubs, and slings, began to surround the white men and steal everything they could lay their hands upon. Some of them actually took the casks of water from Christian's men and rolled them away into the coconut groves. Every moment their demeanour became more threatening and their insulting gestures and language were so unmistakable that Christian got his men together in order to cover the boats, and then paused irresolutely as to his next course of action. For Bligh had given orders that no matter how the natives behaved they were not to be molested, and on no excuse were they to be fired upon.

In a few minutes their numbers had so increased that they began to show signs of making a rush upon Christian's scanty force, evidently mistaking his forbearance for fear; and soon some hundreds of them attempted to cut him off from the boats. It was only at this juncture that he gave orders to fire a volley over the heads of the now advancing and yelling body

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of savages. To this they responded with derisive jeers, shaking their spears and clubs and calling out “Maté! maté!” (“Kill! kill!”).

With great difficulty Christian got his men back into the boats without injury being inflicted on either side, and reported himself to Bligh, who severely reprimanded him.

Wiping the beads of perspiration from his face, the young man replied to his commander's censure: “It is impossible, sir, to carry on the duty unless some steps are taken to prevent the landing party from being cut off by the natives.”

“You are a damned cowardly lot of fellows!” sneered Bligh; “and is it possible that you, Mr. Christian, an officer in the King's Service, are afraid of a troop of savages while you and your men have firearms?”

Christian's face paled and his limbs shook as if in a fit of ague: “Our arms are of no avail, sir, while you forbid their use.”

“Carry on the work and don't attempt to argue with me,” was the contemptuous answer.

So with wrath eating his heart out Christian went back to his task, and by almost superhuman endurance and forbearance managed to complete the wooding and watering of the ship.

At last the work was finished, and the Bounty once more at sea, and on the afternoon of the 26th of April she lay becalmed between Namuka and the island of Tofoa, whose sharp-pointed volcanic cone could be seen thirty miles away, with thin blue curls of smoke

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ascending from its hidden fires into the windless atmosphere, while the sea was of glassy calmness and the ship drifted steadily to the eastward.

Pacing to and fro upon the quarter deck, with the red fury spot showing upon his pale cheeks, the captain presently said, in his quick, angry way, as his eye glanced along the deck—

“Morrison, send Mr. Christian here.”

It was Fletcher Christian's watch on deck, and he at once responded.

“Mr. Christian, what has become of the pile of drinking coconuts which was stowed between the guns? Some scoundrel has taken them. I demand to know who was the person!”

“I cannot tell you, sir, what has become of them.”

“You mean you will not. By heavens, sir, you shall! I have no doubt that whoever took them did so with the sanction of the officers.”

A lump rose in Christian's throat and his voice sounded hoarsely.

“I think, sir, that you are mistaken.”

“We shall see! Pass the word for all the officers to come on deck.”

In a few minutes they were all assembled, and Bligh, now in a fever heat of unreasoning passion, attacked them in the same manner. For some seconds no one answered; then Fryer the master, and Christian and Young assured him each in turn that they had not seen any of the men take the coconuts.

“Then,” said Bligh, and his thin, clean-cut lips curled contemptuously, “you have taken them yourselves!

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Mr. Elphinstone,” turning to the junior master's mate, “bring every coconut in the ship on deck.”

“Now,” went on Bligh, as four or five seamen came on the poop carrying bunches of coconuts, which they placed in heaps on the deck, “please tell me, each of you, which of these heaps you individually claim.”

The officers spoke in turn, and then but one heap of coconuts remained—that belonging to Christian.

“Is this yours, Mr. Christian?” said Bligh, in a voice trembling with passion.

“I really do not know, sir. It is difficult to tell one pile of coconuts from another; but I hope you don't think me mean enough to steal yours.”

“By God, sir, I do! You must have stolen these from me or you could give a better account of them! You infernal rascals! You are all thieves alike and combine with the men to rob me. I will flog you all and make some of you jump overboard before we reach Endeavour Straits.”

Calling Samuel his clerk, Bligh ordered all the grog to be stopped, and only half a pound of yams to be served to each officer's mess in the future—and a quarter of a pound only if a single yam was missed. And then, his handsome features distorted with rage, and muttering curses, he turned upon his heel and went below.

The officers stood and eyed each other with anger and amazement, and began to complain audibly; but Christian, with a strange look in his dark eyes, ordered

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them in a hoarse and broken voice, some to their duty, others to their watch below.

When eight bells struck he was relieved by the master and went to his cabin.

And Edward Young, as he watched Fletcher Christian pass him, with his hands clenched and his face blanched to a deathly white, smiled to himself and said, “It is the last straw.”