TURTLE

Willatopy did not immediately discover that Marie had been forcibly
embarked and definitely severed from his embraces. He did not attend the
place of tryst next day, for he was otherwise engaged. One of his brown
boys had caught a “sucker,” which he pronounced to be in excellent
condition for the chase; a sucker suggested turtle; and the claims,
first of sport and secondly of turtle, cooked native fashion in its own
juices, banished all thoughts of Marie from his mind. Much more
civilised men than the Twenty-Eighth Baron of Topsham have subordinated
Love to Sport and the Table.

Madame was an early riser in the Island. At seven o’clock the following
morning she was up, and was about to seek refreshment in a swim, when
her steward approached.

“Lord Topsham’s compliments,” said the man, “and could Madame spare his
lordship a moment before leaving for her bathe?”

Madame frowned slightly. She naturally expected that Willie had
descended in wrath to demand the return of his ravished mistress, and
she did not want to face a struggle, and possibly a quarrel, before
breakfast.

“His lordship awaits your pleasure,” added the steward, “outside the
escort tent.”

There was nothing to be done except to meet Willatopy at once. He might
perhaps restrain his emotional expression in the public arena of the
stirring men’s camp.

Willatopy hailed Madame joyously. He had gone back at a bound to the gay
light-hearted boy who had killed sharks with trench daggers and caught
fish on the Barrier in his jaws.

“Are you Willie or Lord Topsham?” asked Madame. “I love Willie, but I
don’t think that I am going to approve of Lord Topsham.”

“With you, dear Madame,” cried the boy, “I am always Willie. Let us
forget that I am a great English Lord. One of my boys has caught a
beautiful sucker. He has tied a string to its tail and tethered it to a
stone in the water down yonder. As soon as you have bathed and had
breakfast, Madame, let us be off after turtle in the motor boat. If we
are quick we can eat turtle in the evening, real turtle.” He smacked his
lips.

“What, please, is a sucker?” enquired Madame. She had already been out
with Willie on a not very successful attempt to spear turtle in the open
sea, but had never assisted at a chase _a la_ sucker.

“A sucker,” explained Willie, “is just a sucker. It sticks to the
turtle.”

Madame turned to the group of officers and men who stood at a respectful
distance at the opening of their tent.

“Explain please,” cried she. “What is a sucker?” Captain Ching detached
himself and approached.

“A sucker,” he explained lucidly, “is a remora.”

“Thank you,” said Madame sweetly. “That is excellent as far as it goes.
But what, pray, is a remora?”

Ching struggled helplessly against such dense feminine ignorance. If, in
the absence of the quadruped, one asked a farmer “What is a cow?” he
might become as costive in speech as poor Ching.

The voluble Ewing, who was within earshot, offered his services.

“The remora, Madame, is the fabulous creature which used to cling to the
ships of our forbears, and drag them backwards with all sails set. At
the high school of Paisley they used to teach me that the remora,
fastening its sucker upon the galley of Marcus Antoninus, prevented him
from bringing succour to his Queen Cleopatra.” The pun when first
uttered was accidental, but Ewing, unhappily perceiving that he had
achieved a play on words, repeated the offence deliberately, which was
beyond pardon.

“Your will obsairve, Madame,” remarked he, “that I am a man of wut.”

“Alexander,” said Madame, “if I have any more of your wut I shall send
for my gun. From your description it would appear that the remora is
rather a formidable pet.”

“That is so. The galley of Marcus Antoninus was pulled by the remora
against the efforts of a hundred rowers.”

“Whew!” whistled Madame. “One might as well go a-fishing with a Kraken.”

“But, Madame,” broke in Ching. “A remora is not often more than two
feet long. It is a powerful beast for its size.”

“So it would appear. My brain whirls. A fish two feet long which can
pull a galley against a hundred rowers must be of considerable
horsepower. And yet Willie’s boy has tethered it to a stone. It is true
that he has not revealed the size of the stone–it must be as big as
yonder mountain.”

“The beast is fabulous,” observed Ewing.

“No,” said Ching, “_Echeneis Remora_ is a well-known fish.”

“Willie,” appealed Madame in despair. “Lead me to your captive. These
experts will drive me frantic.”

Willatopy led her about a hundred yards, and showed to her a fish, less
than two feet long, wriggling about in a shallow pool. A string had been
fastened near its forked tail, and the stone, which held it captive,
weighed some five pounds. Willie pointed to the curious, palpitating
organ, some five inches long, upon the shoulders of the fish by means of
which it could adhere by suction to a turtle or to a boat. Hence the
name “sucker.”

“That is a remora,” observed Ching.

“Is it?” said Ewing sourly. “That wee bit thing a remora? Then all I can
say is that our ancestors and our historians are damned liars.”

“Your criticism is not new, Sandy,” observed Madame. “In the unkind
light of positive evidence, tradition and history have a way of
crumpling up. How do you use the beast, Willie?”

Willatopy explained that the sucker adhered to the plastron of a turtle,
which could then be played by means of a long thin line fastened to the
sucker’s tail. For greater security a hole was bored through the
sucker’s back, a bit of string run through, and attached to the main
line.

“Hum!” remarked Madame. “Painful for the sucker, isn’t it?”

With the customary assurance of the sportsman, Willie claimed that the
sucker rather enjoyed than otherwise the use to which its services were
put. By a similar contention a worm loves to be impaled upon a hook.

“If we are quick,” said Willie, “there will be time to cook a turtle for
supper. Have you ever tasted turtle, Madame, real turtle?”

“So I have been assured,” replied Madame cautiously.

“I don’t expect, Madame,” put in Ching, “that you have ever eaten turtle
cooked in its own shell, native fashion.”

“Never. Is it good?”

“Good! Good!” Ching sighed deeply. “If they eat food in Heaven that is
the sort of food that they eat.”

“Will you come with us, Captain, and afterwards join me at supper?”

“I will, Madame. I would not be absent for a thousand pounds.”

“And why should I be left out?” wailed Ewing. “I cannot offer a thousand
pounds for my supper. I am a poor man. But if half-a-croon….”

“You shall come for nothing, Sandy,” said Madame graciously.

The motor boat was ready shortly after breakfast. With her
eight-cylinder forty-horse-power engine she could drive through the
surf on the bar between half-flood and half-ebb, and the big curved
storm curtain in her bows kept her passengers moderately dry, except at
the extreme ends of her tidal range. Willie took on board some sixty
yards of thin cotton line wound upon a wooden check winch, which, long
since, he had purchased in Thursday Island. The wealth of Willatopy
enabled him to improve upon native fishing methods. He fitted the winch
upon a piece of stick, and lashed this stick to a thwart of the boat. He
explained that by keeping the motor boat broadside on to a
sucker-attached turtle–a manoeuvre which her dominating speed made
easy–he could play the beast over the gunwale from his winch. To his
hunting equipment he added four spears–similar to those which had
become the terror of intrusive lawyers–and to the shafts of these
spears were fastened coils of long stout cord. Turtle hunting _a la_
sucker looked a complicated business, though, according to Willie, the
principle was easy of comprehension. One despatched the sucker in quest
of a turtle, just as our ancestors flew falcons after heron, played the
turtle by way of the sucker’s tail and soreback for so long as might be
necessary to tire the animal, then at favourable opportunities the
spears were thrown, and finally the quarry was brought to boat by means
of the cords attached to the shafts of the spears. All this took time,
for a turtle in these waters ran up to some four feet in length and two
hundred and fifty pounds in weight.

“There is a powerful lot of eating in a turtle,” remarked Ewing when
these statistical details had been made clear.

“Wonderful eating, too,” murmured Ching, and fell into deep
contemplation of the divinely copious ambrosia which would reward
success in their chase.

“Does the sucker get any reward for its services?” enquired Madame.

“If it is not too far gone,” explained Willie, “my brown boys eat it.”

“The lords of creation are ungrateful pigs,” said Madame.

Willatopy took one of his boys to do the spearing part of the programme,
a junior engineer relieved Ewing of all care for the engine, Ching
steered, Madame sat in the bows under the storm curtain, and the
expedition set forth. It was bound for the sheltered coves on the west
coast of Tops Island, where turtle were to be found disporting
themselves in five or six fathoms of water. The sucker, a most
accommodating beast, was put over the side of the boat, and instantly
grappled the wooden planking to its adhesive shoulders. It is this
passion for free travel which has made the remora the slave of
turtle-hunting man. He is a hoe-boe among fish; too lazy to swim, he
makes others swim for him. Then man steps in and utilises his laziness.

In the sheltered waters to leeward of the Island turtle could be seen
swimming far down; now and then one would rise, take a gulp of air, flop
over and descend. They were very shy, and when the shadow of the motor
boat fell upon them would flee instantly. Upon Madame’s previous visit
Willatopy never got within spear throw of the beasts, but now he was
better equipped for the discomfiture of turtle. He bade Ching anchor,
but haul short on the cable, so that the launch might get away quickly
upon emergency. The motor was declutched and kept running slowly so that
power would instantly be at call. Then he watched intently the depths of
the clear sea. For some time no turtle approached the hovering boat,
but, after about half-an-hour, the great carapace and flappers of a fine
specimen could be made out. Willie waited patiently until the turtle
began to rise for breath, and then leaning well over he grabbed the
remora, and skinned its sucker off the bottom of the launch. The direct
retaining power of a sucker is enormous, but one may lever up an edge
and peel it off without great difficulty. He rubbed the organ of suction
vigorously with his hand–“to wake it up” said he–and then, as the
turtle neared the surface some forty yards away, threw the remora far
out towards it over the side of the boat. The turtle gulped and sank,
and with it, adhering tightly to its plastron, went the remora. Denied
free, joyous transport under a motor launch, it would put up with
turtle. Its vigorously chafed sucker itched for adherence to something.
The check on the winch whirred as the thin line ran out.

The turtle could not feel the suck of the remora which clung tightly to
its shell, and, for a while was unconscious of the strain upon
Willatopy’s line. A pound or so of pull upon a beast weighing two
hundred weight is not very noticeable. It wandered to and fro upon its
lawful occasions, and all the while Willatopy kept the line tight by
winding it in, or letting it run out against the mechanical check. He
was subjecting the big turtle to less pull than one puts upon a
twenty-pound salmon, and the situation called for sublime patience.

Time passed, the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, the launch
rolled lazily in the back wash of the Pacific swell, but Willatopy went
on oblivious playing his turtle. He could not increase the strain lest
the line be torn out of the remora’s back. I cannot believe, in spite of
Willie’s assurances to Madame, that the remora itself really enjoyed the
sport. A small fish with a string tied round its tail–and also rove
through a hole in its back–and perpetually hauled upon by a heavy check
winch, could not have been wholly comfortable.

The turtle wandered farther and farther away. Willie ordered the anchor
to be hauled up, the propeller moved slowly, and the boat to be steered
in a wide circle of which the turtle and the adhering remora formed the
centre. For an hour or more this manoeuvre was continued, until the
turtle revealed plain signs of annoyance. Hitherto it had risen at
intervals, showed maybe two inches of snout, while it took a mouthful of
air, and then passed to the depths to feed. Now its head would come
right out as it shook it savagely, and the upper flappers would beat the
water in irritation. Willatopy did not hurry the chase. He wanted the
turtle’s attention to be so far diverted from the boat and concentrated
upon its own troubles that he could approach within a spear’s throw. But
he steadily shortened his line, and directed Ching to make circles, or
rather spirals, of ever-narrowing radius. Upon these sea expeditions
Madame did not carry a watch, and was no accurate judge of time without
one. They had reached the fishing ground at about nine o’clock, and it
was about noon when the second stage in the hunt began. Thus Willatopy
had played his turtle for some two hours and a half. Once he could begin
to get in work with his spears, the business would not take long in
completion, though the natives, in their tiny canoes, hauled about by a
speared turtle, will occupy some six hours in the killing. A powerful
motor boat as a base of operation is very different from a bark canoe
two feet wide, and with little more than an inch of free board.

The motor boat, steered by the deeply interested Ching, and guided by an
occasional nod and word from Willatopy, closed in upon ever-narrowing
spirals. The turtle, a huge beast, would now stay up a few seconds after
each rise, shaking its big puzzled head, and churning the water into
angry foam with aimless flappers. Willie signalled to his boy, who
picked up a spear, and got upon his feet. He was a skilful boy, and it
was a pretty bit of javelin work that he put in. The turtle was twenty
yards distant at its last rise, yet the boy got it full under the
flapper with his first cast.

“Now,” roared Willie, as the turtle dashed down and away, leaving a
trail of blood on the water, and the line fastened to the spear shaft
spun out. Round came the motor boat and followed fast, yet not so fast
that the cord was overrun. Willie wanted the turtle to pull against the
barb of the spear, as it had pulled against the check of his winch. The
end now approached. The brown boy, another spear in his hand, waited for
a second chance, and got it. His spear, flung with the most dazzling
force and accuracy, caught the unhappy turtle under a lower flapper as
it rolled over to dive, and it was now attached, fore and aft, by two
cords to the boat. Still Willatopy did not hurry; a turtle’s flesh is
soft, and the barbs might be torn out, and the prey lost if haste
followed too close upon the heels of desire. He went on playing the
beast sideways, hauling in a little upon his cord, as it weakened from
its wounds, until finally he could get within spear’s thrust and reach a
clean finish.

“Now,” said he again, as the turtle, pulled in within six feet of the
boat, wallowed on the surface, and his boy, leaning down, drove a third
and last spear right home between shoulders and carapace. “It is
finished,” said Willie with satisfaction. “We will now go back at speed
and start upon the cookery.”

“I am rather sorry for the brave turtle,” observed Madame.

“Not me,” said Alexander, who throughout had done nothing, and done it
with his customary efficiency. “I have yet to taste a supper which Ching
values at a thousand pounds of our grievously depreciated currency. It
must be a supper worth coming twelve thousand miles to eat.”

“It is worth swimming twelve thousand miles to eat, if you couldn’t get
to it any other way,” said Ching, for once really eloquent.

The turtle had been killed and hauled aboard at half-past twelve. Half
an hour later the motor boat, driven at twenty knots, butted its humped
shoulders through the surf, and sped down the bay to Madame’s camping
ground. A crowd of Willie’s brown boys awaited the arrival of the
hunters. How they knew that a turtle had been caught I cannot explain.
They did know, and wading into the water, they dragged it forth with
enthusiasm.

Their knowledge, acquired so mysteriously, had already impelled them to
light the fires for the cooking, and the stones had been getting hot
long before the motor boat had passed the bar on her rush for home.

“Now watch, Madame,” said Ching. “I have seen native turtle cooking in
Queensland, and it is worth seeing. It may be Stone Age cookery, but we
can’t beat it with all our modern appliances. If the Lord Mayor knew
what turtle really tasted like when properly cooked, he would let the
Mansion House for what it would fetch, and live for ever in the South
Seas.”

“We want eight hours,” pronounced Willie. “No more, and not a minute
less. So jump lively. Madame by nine o’clock will be hungry, but she
will be glad to have waited.”

“I have a healthy appetite at all times,” quoth Madame, “and am always
eager for my meals. But if turtle is like what you suggest, I will wait
for it till midnight.”

“Eight hours,” again said Willie. “No more, but not a minute less.”

While they talked, the boys had cut off the head and the fore flappers
of the turtle, and grubbed out its inside with knives. They hollowed out
the beast as if it had been a pumpkin. Those inward parts which had been
taken out were cleaned carefully, and replaced under the stern
inspecting eye of Willatopy. His reputation was at stake, and he had
determined that Madame should partake of a supper worthy of the goddess
that he still reckoned her to be. Then a hole was dug in the sand, and
the turtle levered up till the tail and lower flappers had been buried
deeply. The headless beast stood up rigidly, and the hole between
carapace and plastron, where its neck had been, yawned capaciously. The
boys went to the smaller of the two fires, and clearing away the red-hot
ashes revealed a dozen flat stones, about the size of small saucers.
These stones glowed red as the ashes amid which they had been heated.
They were picked one up by one between sticks, and dropped down through
the cavity of the neck into the interior of the waiting turtle. As they
fell, they hissed savagely, and a thick oily steam poured forth.

“It smells good,” murmured Madame.

“Wait,” said Willie. He inserted a stout, clean strip of bamboo in the
turtle’s stomach, and stirred the stones thoroughly, so that they might
make burning contact with all the interior juices.

In the meanwhile the brown boys had gone to the second and much larger
fire, which was burning furiously. They cast on dry sticks and churned
its heart so that the flames roared to Heaven. When its heat had been
judged to be sufficient, they raked away the blazing wood from its bed,
and Madame saw that the fire had been built upon stones laid together to
make an oval saucer of about the same size and shape as the turtle’s
carapace. These stones under the fire had also become red hot. Under
Willatopy’s stern exacting eye the sand about the turtle was scraped
away, and the beast, with the hot stones in its belly, eased down
carefully so that not a drop of the precious juice was spilled. Then
four boys lifted it, carapace downwards, and deposited the body on the
hot bed which had been prepared in readiness as its last resting-place.
Instantly, so that none of the essential heat might be dissipated, all
the boys fell to work piling green leaves upon the turtle, and then sand
upon the leaves until a mound, four feet high, rose above the hot stone
bed upon which the promised supper lay stewing slowly in its own rich
juices. Above and below the carapace glowed the hot stones, and within
white flesh and glutin fizzled together in silent preparation. It was,
as the Skipper said, Stone Age cookery, yet all the modern appliances of
civilisation have not come near to equalling its performances.

“I feel hungry already,” wailed Madame, turning sorrowfully away from
the sacred mound.

“Eight hours,” said Willie sternly. “No more, but not a minute less. The
Turtle Will Then Be Cooked.”

Madame issued invitations to all the officers and men of her escort, and
as night drew on, tripods were put up round the mound, under which the
supper was cooking, and ships’ lanterns hung upon them. Wood for a fire
was also prepared and piled up hard by, for the air, after sunset,
rapidly cooled as the heat radiated from the shores of the Island. Mrs.
Toppys and her daughters, all of whom loved turtle cooked native
fashion, were eager to take part in the feast; and since the turtle was
so very large, Madame offered a reversion in the hot corpse to Willie’s
brown boys who had so cunningly provided the apparatus of cookery.

“They shall eat,” said Willie, “but not until we have finished.”
Willatopy, Lord of Tops Island, did not pretend to any truck with
democracy.

I do not often describe meals in my books. They are usually functions of
physical necessity rather than of intellectual interest. But I cannot
refrain from indicating that turtle, cooked native fashion with hot
stones, is a divine repast. A supper which, merely in anticipation,
moved the silent Ching to eloquent enthusiasm, cannot be dismissed in a
bald sentence. Yet how can one convey in words the supreme satisfaction
with which our friends in Tops Island began and ended that memorable
supper? European turtle soup, even that of the Mansion House banquets,
is a pale, tasteless potage when placed in comparison alongside a
carapace filled to the brim with the concentrated essence of turtle
perfectly cooked in its own sacred juices.

At half-past nine that evening Willatopy, in tones of becoming gravity,
announced that supper might be served. The company gathered about the
mound in silence. The occasion was too solemn a one, and feelings were
too deep, for smiles or speech. The ship’s lanterns had been lighted,
and rugs spread conveniently near to the adjacent fire. Willie raised
his hand, and two brown boys stepping forward, cleared the sand and
leaves from the turtle’s shell. Then, with fingers carefully wrapped in
wet leaves, they slowly prised off and lifted the plastron. Upon its
stone bed lay the bountiful carapace, and within glowed in the light of
lanterns a thick deep brown steaming turtle stew. Gallons of it! It is a
poor wretched word, stew, but I am dredged empty of adequate terms in
which to describe that gorgeous compost. The smell of it rose up like a
benediction, and smote all present in the most sensitive nerve centres
of their beings. They gasped and remained speechless. Madame alone
retained something of her self-possession. She beckoned to her steward,
and whispered the one word “SPOONS!”

The man handed them round, and, first, Madame, and then the others,
prepared to dip.

But Alexander Ewing, towering, forbidding in his pale emotion, raised a
warning hand.

“Let us, my friends,” said he solemnly, “first ask a blessing.”

“Dinna be o’er lang, Sandy man,” whispered Madame. She had been in act
to dip her spoon, and the scent of concentrated turtle had come near to
driving forth from her all the polite restraints of civilised feeding.
“Cut the grace short if you love me.”

Alexander asked a blessing, fervent in its agitated brevity. He did not
keep them waiting long. He was himself too eager to begin.

Then they dipped their spoons, slowly sucked down the quintessence of
turtle–and worshipped. Their thanks before meat may have been
perfunctory; afterwards it was heartfelt. They all guzzled, every man
and woman of them. Willatopy sought not to enquire why his Marie was not
present in attendance upon her mistress. He was too busy with his spoon.
Mrs. Toppys with Joy and Cry, though turtle was no new experience for
them, fell to as eagerly as did the Europeans. In some respects it may
be considered by the judicious to have been a horrid spectacle. But give
me the most sour-faced and dyspeptic of social critics, let me place
him before a carapace well filled with real turtle, cooked native
fashion for eight hours, and his high-browed criticism will go to
blazes. He will guzzle with the rest.

They did not stop until exhaustion, following upon repletion, drove them
to the rugs about the fire. There they lay and smoked Madame’s
cigarettes. They did not digest. One does not digest real turtle, cooked
native fashion in its own juices. One absorbs it whole.

Then the brown boys came and fell upon the turtle. They lapped it up
with balls of dried grass; they ate noisily and disgustingly; but those
who had fed before them looked on with approving sympathy. No
restraints, no civilised conventions, can be expected of those, white or
brown, who sup late and hungry upon real turtle. Especially of those who
have cooked it.

When all was finished, Madame suddenly remembered the humble
hard-working sucker, to whose exertions they owed the feast which had
been spread. She beckoned Willie to her side and whispered:

“What became of the dear sucker?”

“Oh!” replied he indifferently. “It was still attached to the turtle
when we drew it in. It died in the boat, so I threw it away. It was no
more good.”

For a full minute Madame said nothing. Then: “Mankind,” observed she
sententiously to the stars which twinkled yet heeded not, “Mankind was
never grateful to its true benefactors. And mankind never changes. But
next time, Willie, please put the sucker back in the water before it is
dead. It might come in useful another time.”