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Chapter Eight. Shooting at Fruit.
As soon as the three men had got well up to the ground and ascertained the cause of Helen’s alarm, and the damage done to Henry’s jacket and skin, Murtagh was the first to make a demonstration. He did so by running in under the tree, and stooping to lay hold of the fruit that had caused the misfortune. Saloo saw him do this without giving a word of warning. He was, perhaps, a little piqued that the Irishman should make himself so conspicuous about things he could not possibly be supposed to understand, and which to the Malay himself were matters of an almost special knowledge. There was a twinkle of mischief in his eye as he contemplated the meddling of Murtagh, and waited for the dénouement.

The latter, rashly grasping the spiny fruit, did not get it six inches above the ground, before he let go again, as if it had been the hottest of hot “purtatees.”

“Och, and what have I done now!” he cried, “I’m jagged all over. There isn’t a smooth spot upon it—not so much as a shank to take howlt of!”

“You takee care, Multa,” cautioned Saloo. “You lookee aloff. May be you get jagee in de skull!”

Murtagh took the hint, and, giving one glance upward, ran back with a roar from under the shadow of the tree.

The Malay, seemingly satisfied with his triumph, now glided underneath the durion, and keeping his eye turned upward, as if intently watching something, he struck the fruit with the piece of pointed stick which he had been using in the search after Singapore oysters, and sent it spinning out upon the open sand beach. Then following, he took out his knife, and inserting the blade among its thickly set spines, cleft it open, displaying the pulp inside.

There was enough to give each person a taste of this most luscious of fruits, and make them desirous of more; even had they not been hungry. But the appetites of all were now keen, and neither the chase nor the fishery had produced a single thing to satisfy them. All three had returned empty-handed. There were many more nuts on the durion-tree. They could see scores of the prickly pericarps hanging overhead, but so high as to make the obtaining of them apparently impossible. They were as far away as the grapes from the fox of the fable.

The stem of the tree rose over seventy feet before throwing out a single branch. It was smooth, moreover, offering neither knot nor excrescence for a foothold. For all this Saloo could have climbed it, had he been in proper strength and condition. But he was not so. He was still weak from the effects of his suffering at sea.

Something more must be had to eat—whether game, fish or shell-fish.

The one great oyster appeared to be a stray. Saloo had begun to despair of being able to find another. The fruit of the durion proved not only pleasant eating, but exceedingly nutritious. It would sustain them, could they only get enough of it. How was this to be obtained?

For a time they stood considering; when Captain Redwood became impressed with an original idea.

In addition to his own rifle, a large ship’s musket had been put into the pinnace. He thought of chain-shot, and its effects; and it occurred to him that by this means the durions might be brought down from their lofty elevation.

No sooner conceived than carried into execution. The musket was loaded with a brace of balls united by a piece of stout tarred string. A shot was fired into the tree, aimed at a place where the fruit appeared thickest. There was havoc made among the adjacent leaves; and five or six of the great pericarps came crashing to the earth. A repetition of the firing brought down nearly a dozen, enough to furnish the whole party with food for at least another twenty-four hours.

Having collected the fallen pericarps, they carried them to another tree that stood near, amid whose leafy branches appeared to be no fruits either so sweet to the lips or dangerous to the skull.

Thither also they transferred their quarters, along with the paraphernalia brought up from the boat, intending to make a more permanent encampment under the newly chosen tree.

For the time they kindled no fire, as the weather was warm enough, and the durions did not require cooking; and while making their mid-day meal of the raw fruit, Saloo interested them by relating some particulars of the tree from which it had been obtained.

We shall not follow the Malay’s exact words, for, as spoken in “pigeon English,” they would scarce be understood; but shall lay before our readers some account of this strange and valuable fruit-tree, culled partly from Saloo’s description and partly from other sources.

The durion is a forest tree of the loftiest order, bearing resemblance to the elm, only with a smooth bark, which is also scaly. It is found growing throughout most of the islands of the Indian Archipelago; and, like the mangosteen, does not thrive well in any other part of the world. This is perhaps the reason its fruit is so little known elsewhere, as when ripe it will not bear transportation to a great distance. The fruit is nearly globe-shaped, though a little oval, and in size equals the largest cocoa-nut.

As the reader already knows, it is of a green colour, and covered with short stout spines, very sharp-pointed, whose bases touch each other, and are consequently somewhat hexagonal in shape. With this chevaux-de-frise it is so completely armed, that when the stalk is broken close off it is impossible to take up the fruit without having one’s fingers badly pricked. The outer rind is so tough and strong, that no matter from what height the fruit falls it is never crushed or broken. From the base of the fruit to its apex, five faint lines may be traced running among the spines. These form the divisions of the carpels where the fruit can be cut open with a sharp knife, though requiring a considerable exertion of strength. The five cells found within are of a silken white colour, each filled with an oval-shaped mass of cream-coloured pulp containing several seeds of the size of chestnuts. The pulp forms the edible portion of the fruit, and its consistence and flavour are both difficult to be described. Mr Wallace, the celebrated hunter naturalist, thus quaintly describes it:—

“A rich, butter-like custard, highly flavoured with almonds, gives the best general idea of it; but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown-sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp, which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy; yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is. It produces no nausea, or other bad effects; and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat durions is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience. When the fruit is ripe it falls of itself; and the only way to eat durions to perfection is to get them as they fall, and the smell is then less overpowering. When unripe, it makes a very good vegetable if cooked, and it is also eaten by the Dyaks raw. In a good fruit season large quantities are preserved salted, in jars and bamboos, and kept the year round, when it acquires a most disgusting odour to Europeans, but the Dyaks appreciate it highly as a relish with their rice. There are in the forest two varieties of wild durions with much smaller fruits, one of them orange-coloured inside. It would not perhaps be correct to say that the durion is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of a sub-acid juicy kind; such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so wholesome and grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour, it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the durion and the orange as the king and queen of fruits.

“The durion is however sometimes dangerous. When the fruit begins to ripen it falls daily and almost hourly, and accidents not unfrequently happen to persons walking or working under the trees. When the durion strikes a man in its fall it produces a dreadful wound, the strong spines tearing open the flesh, whilst the blow itself is very heavy; but from this very circumstance death rarely ensues, the copious effusion of blood preventing the inflammation which might otherwise take place. A Dyak chief informed me that he had been struck by a durion falling on his head, which he thought would certainly have caused his death, yet he recovered in a very short time.”

Both the natives of the Malayan Archipelago and strangers residing there regard the durion as superior to all other kinds of fruit—in short, the finest in the world. The old traveller, Luischott, writing of it as early as 1599, says that in flavour it surpasses all other fruits. While another old traveller, Doctor Paludanus, thus speaks of it: “This fruit is of a hot and humid nature. To those not used to it, it seems at first to smell like rotten onions, but immediately they have tasted it they prefer it to all other food. The natives give it honourable titles, exalt it, and make verses on it.” (Note 1.)

Note 1. To these particulars we may add that the durion (Durio zibethinus) belongs to the natural family of Sterculiaceae, of the same sub-order (Bombaceae) as the silk-cotton tree. It grows to a great stature; its leaves are like those of the cherry, and its pale yellow flowers hang in large bunches. Each tree yields about two hundred fruit in a year. The fruit contains ten to twelve seeds, as large as pigeons’ eggs, and these, when roasted, are as good as, and taste very much like, roasted chestnuts.


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