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The First Australian Love Story

“MASTER,” the question came calm and stern, and the voice of the captain, brave Francis Pelsart, rose clear above the roar of the waves and the wail of the terrified women, “where are we?”

“God knows,” said the young master solemnly, “I do not.”

Far as the eye could see stretched the milk-white water. The full moon in the cloudless heavens made it light as day and gave them no hope of succour, and the waves were already making great breaches in the bulwarks. The good ship Batavia had made her last voyage, and she would leave her bones on this unknown reef. Where were they? These brave mariners of the seventeenth century had sailed out into unknown seas; days ago they had lost their consort, and now they themselves were hard and fast on some unknown reef on the coast of the mythical Great South Land. All they knew was that the nearest civilisation was at Batavia, thousands of miles away to the north, and the master turned away with a sigh. All that man could do he had done, and now they must end here. His blue eyes had a worn and weary look. Dearer to him than his life was his ship, and dearer than his ship was Audine Van Heeren. But truly he must lose them both.

He himself had brought them to destruction.

“Master,” Francis Pelsart was as calm as if no danger threatened, “there are three hundred souls

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aboard this ship, and you and I are answerable to God for them.”

“I know,” said the master, “but no boat could live in such a sea, and we have but the shallop and the little skiff left.”

“We must wait for the dawning then. Is there nothing else?”

“We have done all else that man may do,” and Jacob Webhays looked round the decks. Everything movable was gone already. The spare yards and sails, the coils of rope, the water casks and the harness casks, the stands of arms, all the boats save two, even the brass cannon, had been thrown overboard in the hope of lightening the ship, and the great mainmast had been cut away by the board; but in the darkness, for the clouds had hidden the moon, they had not succeeded in freeing it from the tangle of rigging, and now it lay a new danger to leeward, as it ground against the ship's side with every wash of the waves. Bad seamanship, it seemed to Webhays, but what could he do with a crew half mad with terror. He and Pelsart and the supercargo were, it seemed to him, the only sane men left on board the doomed ship. Those who were not mad with terror were so with drink, and the captain had lost all control over them. True, the chaplain, Van Heeren, was sober enough, but he was so busy preparing for the next world he was no good for this.

Now, as Pelsart turned away anxiously, the master felt a light touch on his arm, and the chaplain's daughter, Audine, stood beside him. He put his arm round her, and she clung to him as she looked out over the waste of waters.

“Must we die?”

“Heart of my heart! The ship is not gone yet. The storm is moderating, and we may reach the land. If it were only the sea! But the crew have broken open the wine casks and——”

He held her close to him, and she could feel his heart beating.

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“I do not fear the men,” she whispered, “only—only the supercargo.”

The gloom on Webhays' face deepened.

“He is my superior officer,”note he said, “but——” He did not finish the sentence, but the gleam of a knife in his right hand ended it for the girl beside him.

What a night it was! The crew were past all discipline, drinking, rioting, fighting, and the master could only stand in the shelter of the high bulwarks, with the girl in his arms, and wait for the dawn. What if some wave, higher and stronger than the rest, should find them out, and sweep them from their hiding-place? Again and again during the long night they heard a rioter swept to his death with a shriek or a drunken laugh, and worse things might yet happen than to die with Audine Van Heeren in his arms.

But the dawn came at length, and with the dawn the sea moderated wonderfully, so much so that the young master crept aft again, and held council with Pelsart and with the supercargo, whom he hated, and then looked up a crew of six men sober enough to man the little skiff, and under his command go and explore the islands.

There were three of them, and he came back and reported them only sand-banks and rocks, barren and desolate enough, but at least safer than the ship.

All day long the skiff and the shallop toiled backwards and forwards, landing those three hundred souls and bringing away provisions and the lighter baggage; but at sundown they had nearly done. Pelsart himself was in the shallop, and the next journey would be the last, when they would bring away the supercargo and the few men remaining on board the wreck with him.

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But as the boat approached the island their ears were greeted once more with the sounds of strife, and with cries that there was no water on the island, and only those who had command of the boats could hope for succour.

At a word from the master the sailors lay on their oars.

“Master,” said Pelsart beside him, “once the boats touch the shore we are lost. What do you advise?”

“I think,” said the master, slowly, “we are not far from the Great South Land which De Nuyts told of. If the boats go there you will surely find water, and can return with it. Besides,” he looked up, “the sky is threatening. There will be rain before morning; a storm, too, or I mistake,” as a great gust of wind tore at the frail boats.

Pelsart demurred. How, he asked, could he desert the people entrusted to his charge, who trusted in him?

“They may trust in your honour,” said Webhays, grimly, “but at present they will tear you in pieces to get at the boats.”

Then he stood up and began to strip.

“For myself,” said he, “I have that on shore I cannot leave, and I will give your honour's message to your people that you have gone to look for water, and will return as soon as you have found it to punish the guilty and reward those who have been true and faithful.”

Then he plunged overboard, and was swept away in the boiling waves. Pelsart made as if he would do likewise, but his crew laid violent hands on him. Were they all to perish, they asked angrily. He must find the Great South Land for them, and help them bring back water for the whole ship's company. They would not even allow him to go back to the ship for his supercargo. And so as Webhays scrambled breathless and half-drowned on the rocky shores of Hautman's Abrolhos the people round him were yelling execrations at the shallop and the little skiff now away on the horizon, and getting smaller and smaller every moment.

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But Webhays' heart was full of exultation as he caught fondly at a loving hand held timidly out to him. There was plenty of rain in that stormy sky. If it only rained half as hard as it had done the day before it would be a strange thing if they could not catch sufficient water to last them for a month at least. They had some food, there was fish in the sea in plenty, and above all—above all—parted from them by a waste of impassable water, was his enemy, and the man Audine Van Heeren dreaded. It was a hard and cruel age, and Webhays would have liked nothing better than to know that Jerom Cornelis was safely drowned. So many had been drowned during the past twenty-four hours. Why not he? No one would miss him, save perhaps the wife in Texel, who would be better without him.

Then he turned away from the sea, and set himself to soothe the angry, excited people who thought themselves deserted, giving them Pelsart's message, pointing to the threatening sky, and urging on them to make every preparation for catching the precious water which soon would be God-given. At first no one heeded him but Audine and her father, and with their aid he began to strengthen a natural reservoir in the rocks, and to scrape down gutters which should lead the rain into it. One by one the others joined them—the women first, and the little children, and then the men; and when his rough reservoir was complete, Webhays, with a sign of gratitude that his superior officer was safe on the wreck, set himself to collect together the provisions they had brought ashore, and to make some sort of shelter for them and for the people against the coming storm. It was midnight before he rested; the clouds were scurrying across the sky wildly, and the moonlight came only in fitful gleams now. Out of the shelter where the women were sleeping came creeping Audine, her fair hair blown about her shoulders, and put a loving hand in his.

“We are safe now,” she whispered. “God bless you; God bless you.” And Webhays, looking up at

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the gathering storm, and feeling the first cold blast of rain on his face, and thinking of his enemy out there on the wreck, answered, “Yes, thank God; I think we are safe.”

And that storm raged for nearly a week, and yet there were signs of life on board the Batavia. On the island they were happy enough, in spite of it. The rain had given them all the water they wanted for some time to come. The master doled out the provisions carefully, and every day under his guidance he sent out fishing parties, who caught enough and more than enough to supply their wants. He broke open a bale or two of merchandise, and gave clothes to those who needed them most, and though it was a desolate, barren island, the little colony began to wear an air of cheerfulness and order which made the old chaplain hold up his hands and bless the good God for all his mercies. His daughter was more inclined to bless God for having sent them Jacob Webhays. And still there was no sign of the returning boats, and still there was life on board the wreck.

Then one Sunday morning broke clear and fine, and the master, looking out to sea, saw between them and the wreck a floating spar, and on it he spied the figure of a man wildly waving to him as if for succour. But what succour could he give? Already the wreckage was beginning to drift ashore, and by and by they might possibly make a rough boat out of it, sufficient to pass from island to island, but as yet they had no means of reaching the broken spar. If the waves did not drive it ashore, the man clinging to it must perish. And the next day he was still there, holding out despairing hands towards them—a little closer, but still too far off to be helped. But the next day the wind and the waves had driven him so far in they could plainly distinguish his features, and behold it was Jerom Cornelis, the supercargo. He was barely sensible now, or he might have swam ashore; a strong man might easily reach him from the island. And yet no one made a movement. Strong within these old Dutchmen lived

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the superstition that he who rescued a life from the greedy sea must give his own life in exchange; and who would give his life for Jerom Cornelis? So they watched the spar all day, till as the sun drew into the west it began to drift out again with the tide.

“He will die,” said Audine pityingly, “and he has fought hard for his life.”

“He need not die,” said her lover, “but I doubt we shall have trouble if he lands here.”

“That is as God pleases,” said the girl piously.

“And I am to be God's instrument,” said Webhays. “A woman should be gentle and tender-hearted, but——”

Another look in her eyes, and he had waded into the sea, and before the waves were breast high, had caught the spar and was bringing it ashore. Once on dry land there were willing hands enough to succour the supercargo, and two or three days saw him as well as ever again, while Webhays was bitterly repenting his mercy, and even gentle Audine Van Heeren felt it would have been a kindness to those on shore to have left him to drown.

Another week, and peace no longer reigned among the little colony of castaways. The supercargo had taken command. He denied the master all authority, and had sent him fishing to the farthest corner of the island, and he had got about him a band of the worst of the crew and passengers. These he called his bodyguard, and they were sworn to do his bidding, even to the shedding of blood. The women began to draw away timorously from him and his followers, and to keep the little children out of his sight; for it was rumoured that the provisions, now recklessly expended, were becoming short, and Cornelis and his bodyguard already grumbled openly at so much flour and meat going to the women, and children, and weaklings. The young girls—there were ten of them—they said, were well enough, but for the old women, and those past their first bloom, and the little children, and the

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sick men—— The unfinished sentence was ominous, and the terror grew and grew, and there was no sign yet of Pelsart's return. Indeed, Cornelis had gathered together all the arms, and redistributed them to the eighty odd ruffians he called his bodyguard, and they said openly that when Pelsart did return, either in the boats or with a ship, the best thing they could do was to seize him and his ship. They would be free lances of the sea.

And Webhays, fishing for the sustenance of the little community, heard all these things, and was powerless to help. Truly he had taken an evil thing out of the sea.

Out of the wreckage they had built now a fair-sized skiff, and a smaller one, and all he could think of was to take Audine in the little skiff, and escape to the other islands, or even to the mainland. He pondered these things without being able to see daylight, and then one night Audine met him under the cliff, whereon grew a little stunted tea-tree, the only signs of vegetation on the island.

“Hush,” she whispered, putting her hand on his lips in the darkness. “I have terrible things to tell you.”

“Well.” He held her so tight he hurt her.

“It has come,” she moaned, “it has come. I should never have asked you to save a man from the sea.”

“What, my heart, what?”

“Cornelis. I am to be his mistress,” she whispered. “He has given me till to-morrow to come quietly—if I don't——”

“I will kill him,” breathed Webhays between his teeth. “There are plenty will help us.”

“Not one,” moaned the girl, “not one. The rest of the girls go to his bodyguard. Not one will help us. You are the only man they fear, and they will kill you. I am afraid to die, I am afraid to live, God help me.”

“Where is the boat?”

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“Too well guarded.”

“The little skiff?”

“Round in the cove. Franz had it fishing.”

But already the grim work had begun. On the cold night air there rose a cry of horror and terror, the wail of fear-stricken women and frightened children, and then a shout of triumph.

Webhays dragged the girl down under the shadow of the cliff, and they listened again. They were powerless to help.

Again and again came the cry of terror, then followed wild shrieks of pain, the sounds of a scuffle, and rude laughter.

“They are murdering them, the helpless ones!”

He drew the girl's hood over her ears and held her close against himself, to shut out those horrible cries. Then he drew his knife; if die she must, this woman he loved, she should die quietly and by loving hands. But the sounds of strife moved farther away from them, and he breathed again. But something must be done, and that quickly.

“If I put you in the little skiff,” he asked, “can you row to the other island and tell them what has happened? Tell them to come over and help us, if they can.”

“I can't. I couldn't. I will die here with you.”

He thought a moment. It was little good his staying there. The best thing he could do would be to induce the men on the other islands to come over and conquer these pirates.

He whispered this resolution to the girl, and together they crept softly down to the cove and into the little skiff. It was such a tiny, frail thing; he doubted whether it would take them across the three-quarters of a mile of rough water that lay between them and the nearest island, but when they reached it safely he made up his mind to go still farther. They were a weakly lot on this rock, eking out a precarious existence on fish and rain water, while on the farther island were stout men far more likely to be of use in this crisis.

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It meant another half-mile of stormy water, but they landed at last, dripping wet, and worn and weary, and five-and-thirty men stood round a little fire of driftwood and listened to their tale.

“And we have no boat,” said Dirk Flamand, swearing an oath loud and deep, “nothing but the raft there.”

“And no arms,” said his mate, “but these,” and he showed a stave broken from a barrel and shod with nails.

“They will serve,” said Webhays, “indeed they must serve, for if we do not go over there they will surely come here after us.”

Some of the men looked as if they considered these newcomers anything but desirable guests, and the girl saw it.

“They will come,” she said, pushing back her damp hood, “whether we are here or no. They must have your provisions. On the island the food is nearly done.”

And then Dirk Flamand swore another oath that if they took the bread and the little remaining meat it would be when he was a dead man. The master swore a like oath, and one by one the others joined in. And at the only place where a boat might land they made a breastwork of stones, and lay down behind it. As for the girl, they took little notice of her—their own lives were at stake, and her lover made her a nook by a little fire, and she lay down there and slept for very weariness, sure that for the present at least no harm could happen to her.

And all that night and the next day and the night after they were at peace, but the next morning the men on the look-out reported that the skiff towing a raft was making for the other island, and they knew that the unfortunates there were doomed. The wind was blowing steadily towards them, and there came down on it terrible cries of pain and terror, that told only too plainly of the horrid work that was being done.

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And in the afternoon the boat with the long raft towing behind came towards them, and they could see plainly it was full of men armed to the teeth with pikes and swords and muskets.

“Courage, sweetheart, courage,” whispered Webhays. “I have a knife, and at the very worst it is one pang and all will be over.” Cold comfort at most for one's sweetheart, but she looked up and smiled bravely back at him.

A squall of rain hid the boat from sight, and one hopeful spirit shouted they were all drowned, but the rain that blotted out everything cleared off, and the boat was close at hand full of yelling, shouting fiends, and they saw that Cornelis was leading them.

Nearer, nearer, and the men with their frail staves in their hands waited behind their breastwork with beating hearts. Then with a shout the boat was driven up the beach, and a storm of stones assailed the invaders. It stopped them for a moment, but not for long. They began to rush up the wet and stony beach, and the defenders, lightly armed as they were, came out to meet them, and it was a hand-to-hand tussle. The cumbersome firearms of those days were practically useless, but the pikes inflicted many an ugly wound, and even those nail-shod staves gave good account of themselves, wielded as they were by stout arms, and men fighting for their lives. Up and down the beach they struggled, and the girl looking on listened to their panting, long-drawn breaths, to their curses and cries of pain. How would it end? How would it end? She knelt and prayed, and wrung her hands to heaven, and looked hopelessly round the horizon. But theirs was the only ship that ever had sailed in these unknown seas. There was no help to be looked for there.

And Webhays went straight for his enemy, the man he had drawn from the cruel sea. Up and down the beach they two wrestled, and neither man would let go, and neither had the advantage. First the pirate was on top, and then the master shook him off, and held

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him down upon the sand. A tuft of green pig's face gave Cornelis a rest for his foot, and he shook off his adversary, and they stood glaring at each other. Webhays made a dash at him with his knife, but he warded it off with his arm from any vital part, though the red blood stained the sand. It was war to the death; there could be no quarter. The master drove him down towards the sea. He turned and was up the shore again, scattering the hot ashes of the fire with his feet. The others were fighting still, but the fight was being fought out between their leaders. The girl who dreaded him so snatched a brand from the fire to defend herself with, and he laughed in her face.

“Your turn comes next, Mistress,” he said, and as the burning brand struck him on the knee, he shouted with an oath that he would make her pay for this.

But the master was upon him, and he had him at a disadvantage, for his back was to a little chasm in the cliff at least ten feet deep.

“Now, it is my turn; now, now,” cried Webhays, and he rushed on, and back stepped his opponent into the hole behind him.

And there came a cry from the girl, “A sail! A sail! Thank the good God, a sail!”

That ended it. In one moment all eyes were turned on the sail. It must be, it was, Pelsart returning, and back to their boats rushed the invaders. It was their business now to make a good story to their chief, or if possible to capture his ship, supposing they carried out Cornelis' plan.

But Cornelis was lying a helpless prisoner with a broken leg, and how Pelsart punished those mutineers is a matter of history.

The girl looked out over the sea at the rapidly approaching ship.

“We are safe, sweetheart, safe,” whispered her weary lover. “Thank God, thank God!”

“For you,” said the girl, “for you.”

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And the setting sun shed his rosy rays on the first love story that ever was told on Australian shores.note