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Chapter Six. A Gigantic Oyster.
“Water! water!”

The pain of hunger is among the hardest to endure, though there is still a harder—that of thirst. In the first hours of either, it is doubtful which of the two kinds of suffering is the more severe; but, prolonged beyond a certain point, hunger loses its keenness of edge, through the sheer weakness of the sufferer, while the agony of thirst knows no such relief.

Suffering, as our castaways were, from want of food for nearly a week, their thirst was yet more agonising; and after the thanksgiving prayer had passed from their lips, their first thought was of water—their cry, “Water! water!”

As they arose to their feet they instinctively looked around to see if any brook or spring were near.

An ocean was flowing beside them; but this was not the kind of water wanted. They had already had enough of the briny element, and did not even turn their eyes upon it. It was landward they looked; scanning the edge of the forest, that came down within a hundred yards of the shore—the strip of sand on which they had beached their boat trending along between the woods and the tide-water as far as the eye could trace it. A short distance off, however, a break was discernible in the line of the sand-strip—which they supposed must be either a little inlet of the sea itself, or the outflow of a stream. If the latter, then were they fortunate indeed.

Saloo, the most active of the party, hastened toward it; the others following him only with their eyes.

They watched him with eager gaze, trembling between hope and fear—Captain Redwood more apprehensive than the rest. He knew that in this part of the Bornean coast months often pass without a single shower of rain; and if no stream or spring should be found they would still be in danger of perishing by thirst.

They saw Saloo bend by the edge of the inlet, scoop up some water in his palms, and apply it to his lips, as if tasting it. Only for an instant, when back to them came the joyful cry,—

“Ayer! ayer manis! süngi!” (Water! sweet water! A river!)

Scarce more pleasantly, that morning at day-break, had fallen on their ears the cry of “Land!” than now fell the announcement of the Malay sailor, making known the proximity of water. Captain Redwood, who was acquainted with the Malay language, translated the welcome words. Sweet water, Saloo had described it. Emphatically might it be so termed.

All hastened, or rather rushed, toward the stream, fell prostrate on their faces by its edge, and drank to a surfeit. It gave them new life; and, indeed, it had given them their lives already, though they knew it not. It was the outflow of its current into the ocean that caused the break in the coral reef through which their boat had been enabled to pass. Otherwise they might have found no opening, and perished in attempting to traverse the surging surf. The madrepores will not build their subaqueous coral walls where rivers run into the ocean; hence the open spaces here and there happily left, that form deep transverse channels admitting the largest ships.

No longer suffering from thirst, its kindred appetite now returned with undivided agony, and the next thought was for something to eat.

They again turned their eyes toward the forest, and up the bank of the stream that came flowing from it. But Saloo had seen something in the sea, near the spot where the pinnace had been left; and, calling upon Murtagh to get ready some dry wood and kindle a fire, he ran back toward the boat.

Murtagh, the rest accompanying him, walked to the edge of the woods where the stream issued from the leafy wilderness.

Just beyond the strip of sand the forest abruptly ended, the trees standing thick together, and rising like a vast vegetable wall to a height of over a hundred feet. Only a few straggled beyond this line. The very first of them, that nearest the sea, was a large elm-like tree, with tall trunk, and spreading leafy limbs that formed a screen from the sun, now well up in the sky, and every moment growing more sultry. It offered a convenient camping-place; and under its cool shadow they could recline until with restored strength they might either seek or build themselves a better habitation.

An ample store of dry faggots was lying near; and Murtagh having collected them into a pile, took out his flint and steel, and commenced striking a light.

Meanwhile their eyes were almost constantly turned toward Saloo, all of them wondering what had taken him back to the boat. Their wonder was not diminished when they saw him pass the place where the pinnace had been pulled up on the sand, and wade straight out into the water—as if he were going back to the breakers!

Presently, after he had got about knee-deep, they saw him stoop down, until his body was nearly buried under the sea, and commence what appeared to be a struggle with some creature still concealed from their observation. Nor was their wonder any the less, when at length he rose erect again, holding in his hands what for all the world looked like a huge rock, to which a number of small shells and some sea-weed adhered.

“What does the Malay crather want wid a big stone?” was the interrogatory of the astonished Irishman. “And, look, captin, it’s that same he’s about bringin’ us. I thought it moight be some kind of shill-fish. Hungry as we are, we can’t ate stones?”

“Not so fast, Murtagh,” said the captain, who had more carefully scrutinised the article Saloo had taken up. “It’s not a stone, but what you first supposed it—a shell-fish.”

“That big thing a shill-fish! Arrah now, captin, aren’t you jokin’?”

“No, indeed. What Saloo has got in his arms, if I’m not mistaken, is an oyster.”

“An oysther? Two fut in length and over one in breadth. Why, it’s as much as the Malay can carry. Don’t yez see that he’s staggerin’ under it?”

“Very true; but it’s an oyster for all that. I’m now sure of it, as I can see its shape, and the great ribs running over it. Make haste, and get your fire kindled; for it’s a sort of oyster rather too strong-flavoured to be eaten raw. Saloo evidently intends it to be roasted.”

Murtagh did as requested, and by the time the Malay, bearing his heavy burden, reached the tree, smoke was oozing through a stack of faggots that were soon after ablaze.

“Tha, Cappen Ledwad,” said the Malay, flinging his load at the captain’s feet. “Tha plenty shell-fiss—makee all we big blakfass. Inside find good meat. We no need open him. Hot coalee do that.”

They all gathered around the huge shell, surveying it with curiosity, more especially the young people.

It was that strange testaceous fish found in the Indian seas, and known to sailors as the “Singapore oyster”—of which specimens are not rare measuring a yard in length, and over eighteen inches in breadth at the widest diameter.

Their curiosity, however, was soon satisfied; for with stomachs craving as theirs, they were in no very fit condition for the pursuit of conchological studies; and Saloo once more lifting the large oyster—just as much as he could do—dropped it among the faggots, now fairly kindled into a fire.

More were heaped around and over it, until it was buried in the heart of a huge pile, the sea-weeds that still clung to it crackling, and the salt water spurting and spitting, as the smoke, mingled with the bright blaze, ascended toward the overshadowing branches of the tree.

In due time Saloo, who had cooked Singapore oysters before, pronounced it sufficiently roasted; when the faggots were kicked aside, and with a boat-hook, which Murtagh had brought from the pinnace, the oyster (Note 1.) was dragged out of the ashes.

Almost instantly it fell open, its huge valves displaying in their concave cups enough “oyster-meat” to have afforded a supper for a party of fifteen individuals instead of five—that is, fifteen not so famished as they were.

With some knives and other utensils, which the Irishman had also brought away from the boat, they seated themselves around the grand bivalve; nor did they arise from their seats until the shells were scraped clean, and hunger, that had so long tortured them, was quite banished from their thoughts.

Note 1. Strictly speaking, the Singapore oyster is a gigantic species of Clam, (Tridacna).


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