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Chapter 5

Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as
if she had laid an asteroid.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 11. In this world we often make mistakes of judgment.
We do not as a rule get out of them sound and whole, but sometimes we do.
At dinner yesterday evening-present, a mixture of Scotch, English,
American, Canadian, and Australasian folk--a discussion broke out about
the pronunciation of certain Scottish words. This was private ground,
and the non-Scotch nationalities, with one exception, discreetly kept
still. But I am not discreet, and I took a hand. I didn't know anything
about the subject, but I took a hand just to have something to do. At
that moment the word in dispute was the word three. One Scotchman was
claiming that the peasantry of Scotland pronounced it three, his
adversaries claimed that they didn't--that they pronounced it 'thraw'.
The solitary Scot was having a sultry time of it, so I thought I would
enrich him with my help. In my position I was necessarily quite
impartial, and was equally as well and as ill equipped to fight on the
one side as on the other. So I spoke up and said the peasantry
pronounced the word three, not thraw. It was an error of judgment.
There was a moment of astonished and ominous silence, then weather
ensued. The storm rose and spread in a surprising way, and I was snowed
under in a very few minutes. It was a bad defeat for me--a kind of
Waterloo. It promised to remain so, and I wished I had had better sense
than to enter upon such a forlorn enterprise. But just then I had a
saving thought--at least a thought that offered a chance. While the
storm was still raging, I made up a Scotch couplet, and then spoke up and
said:

"Very well, don't say any more. I confess defeat. I thought I knew, but
I see my mistake. I was deceived by one of your Scotch poets."

"A Scotch poet! O come! Name him."

"Robert Burns."

It is wonderful the power of that name. These men looked doubtful--but
paralyzed, all the same. They were quite silent for a moment; then one
of them said--with the reverence in his voice which is always present in
a Scotchman's tone when he utters the name.

"Does Robbie Burns say--what does he say?"

"This is what he says:

'There were nae bairns but only three
--Ane at the breast, twa at the knee.'"

It ended the discussion. There was no man there profane enough, disloyal
enough, to say any word against a thing which Robert Burns had settled.
I shall always honor that great name for the salvation it brought me in
this time of my sore need.

It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with
confidence, stands a good chance to deceive. There are people who think
that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition; there
are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.

We are moving steadily southward-getting further and further down under
the projecting paunch of the globe. Yesterday evening we saw the Big
Dipper and the north star sink below the horizon and disappear from our
world. No, not "we," but they. They saw it--somebody saw it--and told
me about it. But it is no matter, I was not caring for those things, I
am tired of them, any way. I think they are well enough, but one doesn't
want them always hanging around. My interest was all in the Southern
Cross. I had never seen that. I had heard about it all my life, and it
was but natural that I should be burning to see it. No other
constellation makes so much talk. I had nothing against the Big Dipper
--and naturally couldn't have anything against it, since it is a citizen of
our own sky, and the property of the United States--but I did want it to
move out of the way and give this foreigner a chance. Judging by the
size of the talk which the Southern Cross had made, I supposed it would
need a sky all to itself.

But that was a mistake. We saw the Cross to-night, and it is not large.
Not large, and not strikingly bright. But it was low down toward the
horizon, and it may improve when it gets up higher in the sky. It is
ingeniously named, for it looks just as a cross would look if it looked
like something else. But that description does not describe; it is too
vague, too general, too indefinite. It does after a fashion suggest a
cross across that is out of repair--or out of drawing; not correctly
shaped. It is long, with a short cross-bar, and the cross-bar is canted
out of the straight line.

It consists of four large stars and one little one. The little one is
out of line and further damages the shape. It should have been placed at
the intersection of the stem and the cross-bar. If you do not draw an
imaginary line from star to star it does not suggest a cross--nor
anything in particular.

One must ignore the little star, and leave it out of the combination--it
confuses everything. If you leave it out, then you can make out of the
four stars a sort of cross--out of true; or a sort of kite--out of true;
or a sort of coffin-out of true.

Constellations have always been troublesome things to name. If you give
one of them a fanciful name, it will always refuse to live up to it; it
will always persist in not resembling the thing it has been named for.
Ultimately, to satisfy the public, the fanciful name has to be discarded
for a common-sense one, a manifestly descriptive one. The Great Bear
remained the Great Bear--and unrecognizable as such--for thousands of
years; and people complained about it all the time, and quite properly;
but as soon as it became the property of the United States, Congress
changed it to the Big Dipper, and now every body is satisfied, and there
is no more talk about riots. I would not change the Southern Cross to
the Southern Coffin, I would change it to the Southern Kite; for up there
in the general emptiness is the proper home of a kite, but not for
coffins and crosses and dippers. In a little while, now--I cannot
tell exactly how long it will be--the globe will belong to the
English-speaking race; and of course the skies also. Then the
constellations will be re-organized, and polished up, and re-named--the
most of them "Victoria," I reckon, but this one will sail thereafter as
the Southern Kite, or go out of business. Several towns and things, here
and there, have been named for Her Majesty already.

In these past few days we are plowing through a mighty Milky Way of
islands. They are so thick on the map that one would hardly expect to
find room between them for a canoe; yet we seldom glimpse one. Once we
saw the dim bulk of a couple of them, far away, spectral and dreamy
things; members of the Horne-Alofa and Fortuna. On the larger one are
two rival native kings--and they have a time together. They are
Catholics; so are their people. The missionaries there are French
priests.

From the multitudinous islands in these regions the "recruits" for the
Queensland plantations were formerly drawn; are still drawn from them, I
believe. Vessels fitted up like old-time slavers came here and carried
off the natives to serve as laborers in the great Australian province.
In the beginning it was plain, simple man-stealing, as per testimony of
the missionaries. This has been denied, but not disproven. Afterward it
was forbidden by law to "recruit" a native without his consent, and
governmental agents were sent in all recruiting vessels to see that the
law was obeyed--which they did, according to the recruiting people; and
which they sometimes didn't, according to the missionaries. A man could
be lawfully recruited for a three-years term of service; he could
volunteer for another term if he so chose; when his time was up he could
return to his island. And would also have the means to do it; for the
government required the employer to put money in its hands for this
purpose before the recruit was delivered to him.

Captain Wawn was a recruiting ship-master during many years. From his
pleasant book one gets the idea that the recruiting business was quite
popular with the islanders, as a rule. And yet that did not make the
business wholly dull and uninteresting; for one finds rather frequent
little breaks in the monotony of it--like this, for instance:

"The afternoon of our arrival at Leper Island the schooner was lying
almost becalmed under the lee of the lofty central portion of the
island, about three-quarters of a mile from the shore. The boats
were in sight at some distance. The recruiter-boat had run into a
small nook on the rocky coast, under a high bank, above which stood
a solitary hut backed by dense forest. The government agent and
mate in the second boat lay about 400 yards to the westward.

"Suddenly we heard the sound of firing, followed by yells from the
natives on shore, and then we saw the recruiter-boat push out with a
seemingly diminished crew. The mate's boat pulled quickly up, took
her in tow, and presently brought her alongside, all her own crew
being more or less hurt. It seems the natives had called them into
the place on pretence of friendship. A crowd gathered about the
stern of the boat, and several fellows even got into her. All of a
sudden our men were attacked with clubs and tomahawks. The
recruiter escaped the first blows aimed at him, making play with his
fists until he had an opportunity to draw his revolver. 'Tom
Sayers,' a Mare man, received a tomahawk blow on the head which laid
the scalp open but did not penetrate his skull, fortunately. 'Bobby
Towns,' another Mare boatman, had both his thumbs cut in warding off
blows, one of them being so nearly severed from the hand that the
doctors had to finish the operation. Lihu, a Lifu boy, the
recruiter's special attendant, was cut and pricked in various
places, but nowhere seriously. Jack, an unlucky Tanna recruit, who
had been engaged to act as boatman, received an arrow through his
forearm, the head of which--apiece of bone seven or eight inches
long--was still in the limb, protruding from both sides, when the
boats returned. The recruiter himself would have got off scot-free
had not an arrow pinned one of his fingers to the loom of the
steering-oar just as they were getting off. The fight had been
short but sharp. The enemy lost two men, both shot dead."

The truth is, Captain Wawn furnishes such a crowd of instances of fatal
encounters between natives and French and English recruiting-crews (for
the French are in the business for the plantations of New Caledonia),
that one is almost persuaded that recruiting is not thoroughly popular
among the islanders; else why this bristling string of attacks and
bloodcurdling slaughter? The captain lays it all to "Exeter Hall
influence." But for the meddling philanthropists, the native fathers and
mothers would be fond of seeing their children carted into exile and now
and then the grave, instead of weeping about it and trying to kill the
kind recruiters.

Mark Twain