From the Children’s Friend, 1938-39:
The Bottle Message
The Adventures of a Boy on a South Sea Island
By Janet Tooke
Chapter One: Old Father Sea
Thomas Tathom the Second lay on a bunk in the schooner Mynah, experiencing his first qualms of sea-sickness. The voyage aboard the liner from New York had been quiet sailing and uneventful. Then he and his uncle, Thomas Tathom the First, had transferred themselves and their baggage to the Mynah, which had met them at Hilo. And it was the second day after they set sail in the small boat that wind and sea commenced a game of catchball with the schooner, tossing her to and fro in a manner that Thomas Tathom the Second (to be known hereafter as Tee) considered dangerous and utterly erratic.
His head grew dizzy with the sight of the great waves and the milk-white surf that shot angrily over the decks. His ears ached with the continuous roar of the elements, with the savage slap-slapping of waves against the sides of the comparatively frail Mynah. The boat plunged sickeningly, diving into the belly of the ocean only to rise again to the very crest of a mountainous wave, setting his inwards trembling. And with the falling of darkness he crawled miserably into what he believed to be the cabin he shared with his uncle.
It was only with the entry of two sailors into the dark cabin that he discovered his mistake, and at the same time something that placed his physical misery in a place of secondary importance.
“Bad!” exclaimed one, whose voice Tee recognized as that of Jim, a slender young South Sea islander, with a livid scar running from brow to cheek.
The man who answered was a Portuguese, whose startlingly white hair was acquired, he said, during a five-day period of drifting aimlessly at sea in an open boat, beneath a broiling sun.
As courageous a couple, Tee knew, as could be found anywhere, yet their voices there in the darkness, accompanied by the pounding thunder of wind and sea, were ominous, and low with apprehension.
“Very bad!” agreed Paul, the Portugee, “Ole devil sea much angry!”
“More better, p’raps, we hide him,” suggested Jim. “If boys catch, they throw him overboard quick.”
There was an instant’s silence, then: “More bettah, p’raps, they do! Two names all same one ship bring bad spirits, sure, sure!” from Paul.
A sudden lurch sent the speakers hurtling. A yelling order outside pierced the noise of the elements, and Tee found himself alone, and flat on the cabin floor, blood pouring copiously from his nose, which had been the first portion of him to reach the floor.
Several times during the day he had noticed the furtive, sidelong glances of the native sailors. Little whispering groups of them, who had hitherto been so cordial, scattering at his approach. And this was the explanation. Two Thomas Tathoms on one boat. Bad luck!
Tee grinned as he rubbed a bump on his head where he had come into violent contact with the bunk, and felt his way toward the companionway. The Mynah rolled drunkenly. A wave washed the upper deck and catapulted down the companionway, soaking the boy from head to foot. He gasped, and clung frantically to the tipped-up steps, feeling much like a fly on a ceiling.
The schooner righted herself long enough to enable him to gain the deck; and there he found such black darkness as he would not hitherto have believed possible. Oil lanterns swinging here and there merely accentuated it, and Tee, catching at intervals in their feeble light the gleam of pale, drawn faces, felt sudden anxiety and remorse.
Of course there was nothing to the superstition of bad luck following a boat carrying two persons of the same name. Still, when the hurricane started, it was naturally the first thing the native boys thought of, causing a secret undercurrent of fear that reduced their usefulness. And that, Tee pondered, might possibly result in the loss of the Mynah, with all hands!
He came to a sudden stop, clutching the rails for support. It was somewhere in these waters that Jack Tathom, his father, was drowned. Perhaps in this self-same spot.
Was it fated that he and his Uncle Tom, his father’s brother, were to join him there?
Tee felt no fear. Only a feeling of awe; and terrible pity that this was to be the result of his uncle’s generosity. The culmination of his long years of exile from his beloved Waiki-pali, which he had devoted to search for his nephew.
Tee’s thoughts, darting backwards, reviewed in vivid, movie-like flashes the events of the last two months. The day when the tubby, pink-cheeked gentleman walked down the east-side alley which Tee had called home. Like a fussy little sea-craft he was, his wide-brimmed Panama blowing backwards from his brow, his white coat and linen pants flapping with every movement. Puffing a bit, yet light-footed, and seeming to float rather than walk. Tee’s dumb astonishment when he had heard the little man ask Tony, the hot-dog vendor, where Thomas Tathom lived.
“Thoma’ Tathom?” Tony shook his head decisively. “No Thoma’ Tathom here. Never hear-a da name.”
Tee, who had almost felt his ears prick up like a fox-terrier’s, recovered his senses sufficiently to say: “My name’s Thomas Tathom, sir.”
The stranger had stared at him. Queerly and silently. And Tee, suddenly reminded of his own ragged appearance, had reddened guiltily.
“Yah!” Tony yelled. “You get outta here, keed! … You not Thoma’ Tathom. You Tee Totum.”
Tee Totum! He hated the name worse than ever then. Acquired during his infancy, and originating in his inability to pronounce “Tom Tathom,” Tee Totum had stuck, and there were few who remembered that it was not his real name.
When he turned away in confusion, the stranger had detained him with a firm grip on his shoulder.
“Why did you say you were Thomas Tathom, boy?”
Tee had turned then, and looked boldly into the other’s eyes. “Because that is my name, sir.”
“Nah! He Tee Totum!” This from Tony. And Tee had been obliged to stammer an explanation.
The stranger in white slapped his thighs and laughed till the tears ran down his red cheeks. “Haw-haw-haw! Ho-ho-ho! When do you start spinning, Tee Totum? … Ho-ho! That’s a good one for a nephew of mine!”
The little man had been quite overcome with mirth, or was it simulated in order to hide a deeper emotion?
Proof of Tee Totum’s identity followed, and proof of his uncle’s identity. The story of how Jack Tathom, Tee’s father, had been lost at sea while Tee was still a baby; of his mother’s disappearance; and of his uncle’s subsequent search for Jack’s boy. And to crown the whole marvelous adventure, Tathom’s expressed wish that Tee accompany him to his home on Waiki-pali, a small island in the South Seas.
At first it had been incredible to the boy, who had been alone all his life. Fantastic as a dream. Adopted into the family of a kindly Italian cobbler, his most pressing needs had been filled, but he had never felt like one of the family. Now, to think that he really belonged to this jolly little man in white, that the little man wanted him more than anything else in the world, was pure joy.
Remembering all this, Tee looked around for his uncle, intending to inform him of the conversation he had overheard, and so, perhaps, avert greater trouble than the hurricane was already causing. Grasping the rail with both hands, he moved slowly and cautiously forward to where the older Tathom’s voice could be heard stertorously bawling orders to the panicky crew.
An unusually gigantic wave dashed against the side of the schooner, broke, and shot, glacier-like, high above deck, only to thud downwards with a thunderous boom, loosening the boy’s grip on the rail, and hurling him with sickening force to the boards.
He was conscious of rolling over and over down a deep incline that felt like a playground slide, of coming to a sudden stop somewhere with a crack on his head that for a split second was agony. Then darkness and oblivion.
He awakened to the splashing of water that washed over his body with a constant and regular rhythm, to a dull ache in his head, and to a sound that underlay the roar of wind and sea. Low, eager voices close to his ear. Bare, stooping bodies scarcely discernible in the surrounding blackness.
“Quick! Throw him ovah! Mista Tom never know! Devil wind much angry!”
An assenting voice: “Ovah! Quick!”
Murmurs of dissent, then strong arms lifting, swinging him: “One! … Two! … Three!”
As in a dream he struggled. As in a dream, he was tied hand and foot with weak inertia, with a helplessness that was yet keenly aware of his danger.
Then the buffeting of another great wave, drenching, choking. A sensation of being seized at the waist by a huge arm that clutched him and held him close. A spasm of violent motion, grunts, and a voice like the rolling of distant thunder. Silence.
With an agony of effort Tee dragged his eyelids open. He lay on a deck awash with water that chased hither and yon with every motion of the boat. On either side of him rose a bare, brown leg, strong and firm as a granite pillar. Following the legs upward, he found they belonged to Peter Malua, master of the Mynah. The huge Kanaka who had led the band of men to welcome Uncle Tom at Hilo. Who had prepared a luau, a feast, in their honor. And who had then welcomed them aboard his own boat for the last lap of the journey to Waiki-pali. A man who had looked at him strangely, his eyes seeming to pierce far below the surface, and to read things there that Tee had previously felt were incommunicable.
Now the man breathed heavily, standing over Tee’s prostrate form, his arms flaying to right and left, his great fists causing sickening thuds of sound as they pounded on the flesh of a circle of half-naked figures.
One by one these figures dropped, or slunk, away, into the shadows, till man and boy were left alone with the elements.
“Where’s Uncle Tom?” Tee gasped. “They’ll get him now!”
A slow smile appeared on Peter Malua’s face. “I think you no know Thoma’ Tathom very well, huh?”
“Not as well as you do, I guess, but – you don’t understand. Those boys think they’ve got to get rid of one of us, because we have the same name, see. They think that’s the cause of the storm.” He struggled to his feet. “We got to find him.”
Peter laid a restraining hand on his arm. “Thoma’ Tathom at the wheel. Don’t be afraid. Boys nevah touch Thoma’ Tathom.”
The man’s words were full of confidence. Nevertheless, Tee had to satisfy himself that all was well with his uncle; and he staggered forward, legs widespread, hands clutching the lurching rail.
The man at the wheel was stripped to the waist. His short sturdy legs, wide apart, held his body firm as a rock. Catching sight of his nephew’s anxious face, he grinned delightedly.
“Grand night for a spin, eh, Tee Totum? Ha-ha-ha! Ho-ho-ho!”
Shamed of his fear for this extraordinary uncle of his, Tee turned away without a word. In the darkness he made out the dusky forms of native boys. Quick, eager. Absorbed in the job at hand, leaping to obey the slightest command of Malua or Tathom. He found it hard to believe that they were the same men who, a few moments previously, had tried to throw him overboard because of a name.
Morning broke calm and brilliant. Tee tumbled from his bunk and eagerly scrambled up the companionway. Scanning the deck His eyes widened with amazement. It was as if, in the dark of night, a giant hand had descended upon the schooner, torn everything movable from its holdings, and scattered them in all directions. The once trim deck presented an incredible sight. Casks, sails, chests, ropes, and other impedimenta cluttered on every side. The whole ship might have been a floating junk heap.
Except for Peter Malua and two heavy-eyed men, the crew had thrown themselves down wherever they happened to be when the wind ceased. And now they lay sprawled in the most unexpected places, inert as sacks of grain.
“You look in mirror today, Tee Totum? No?” Peter Malua grinned.
Tee shook his head. “Guess I’d better go and fix up before Tom wakes.”
Malua nodded. “P’raps better you do that.”
It was no wonder that Peter grinned. Staring at his reflection, Tee marveled at the change a short time could bring about. One eye was black. A great bump stood out over the other. His upper lip was swollen to twice its size, and blood from a cut had dried in a long smear across one cheek and down his neck. Topping all this, his hair, stiff with dried salt water, stood straight on end, giving him a grotesquely comic appearance.
When he returned to deck Thomas Tathom stood beside Malua, gazing steadily out to the horizon, where, on being given the glasses, Tee made out a slender line of waving palms.
“Waiki-pali?” he asked eagerly.
“No, but the first of a string of islands, of which Waiki-pali is one. It won’t be long now!” There was deep satisfaction in Tathom’s tone.
“Glad to get home, Uncle?”
“More than I can say, me boy. And I think you’ll understand my feeling when you’ve seen the island.” And Tee, seeing in the faces of his companions a quiet, but very real, joy at sight of that slender green line, was eager as either to reach the mysterious island where his uncle reigned supreme.
The dining saloon being impenetrable, breakfast was served on deck, an overturned chest for a table, a boat for a seat. Eating great quantities of papaia, broiled bacon, and buttered toast, Tee felt that, of all delights this, surely must be the greatest. To sit on the deck of a near-wrecked schooner, on a sea glistening like an enormous mother-of-pearl, smiling as a few hours before it had been savage. To sit with perfect safety on a sea like that, eating such fare as this, in the company of two such men, more than compensated for the miseries of the past day and night.
His thoughts wandered again to that dead father of his, the sailor who had gone down in just such a storm as the Mynah had weathered. And when Malua, whose wearied eyelids refused to keep open a moment longer, dragged himself below, he ventured to question Tom further about him. A subject on which he had hitherto felt an unconquerable diffidence.
“We were only kids when we left home, Jack and me,” answered Tom. “The sea had always had a pull for us, and when we got a chance to run away together, we did. Seafaring was hard in those times, but we stuck with it for several years, until we come to Waiki-pali. And that was the place that won me away. I’d seen many grand places in my travels, but none that could come quite up to Waiki-pali. I stayed there, making friends with the natives, and growing coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, papaia, and such, while Jack became master of a freighter plying between ‘Frisco and the islands. I grew the stuff and he took it to market. A grand partnership, until …”
“Until the sea took him?”
Tom nodded. His boat was the ‘Mynah.’ Malua christened this one after her as – a sort of gesture of defiance. Malua and Jack were devoted to each other, you see. More like brothers than friends. Well, we’d been waiting for days for the Mynah’s return – she was more than two weeks late already – when other boats putting in told of a sudden and violent storm at sea. A great deal of damage was reported, and boats had gone down, but nothing could be learned about the Mynah. She had disappeared without a sign.”
“I made enquiries of every possible source, but no news came until nearly three years later, when a bottle was washed ashore on an island many miles to the south of Waiki-pali. Inside the bottle was found a letter addressed to me, which was immediately mailed.”
“A letter in a bottle?”
Tathom nodded. “‘Twas the only way he had of telling me what happened. The storm was so violent and had come upon them so suddenly that the Mynah was unable to stand up against it. But the most important part of the message – at least, part of the most important – was that I must immediately find you, and look after you.”
Tom stopped speaking.
“And the other thing?” urged Tee. “The other important part?”
“That’s one thing, Tee,” he said at last, “that I’m not going to tell you just yet. A little later on p’raps, when you’ve got used to the island and all that.” His voice trailed away to a dreamy silence, and there was something in his manner, in the wistfulness of his eyes, that prevented Tee from pressing the subject further.
“Since then I’ve been here, there, and everywhere, lookin’ for you. My wish to be back on the island only second to my wish to find you. Now I’ve succeeded I – I think we’re goin’ to be happy.”
Tee was unable to say much, but in his heart he felt that he could wish no better fate than to live on Waiki-pali with this lovable chap.
With the gradual awakening of the crew, work was resumed on the Mynah, in which Tom and Tee took a very active part. Malua, being the last to seek his berth, was the last to awaken; and when he arrived on deck things were ship-shape once more.
Unostentatiously he drew Tee aside. “I think you not tell Thoma’ Tathom ‘bout what boys do las’ night?”
Tee shook his head. “Didn’t see why I should bother him about it.”
Malua laid a hand on his shoulder. “I think you Jack’s son all right.”
Tee glowed with pleasure. This he felt was the highest praise Malua could bestow.
He was a splendid looking man, this Peter Malua. Tall, brown, and muscular, with thick hair that was just starting to go grey. Unlike Thomas Tathom, his smile was very rare, and now he stood gazing solemnly at the boy, frankly studying him from head to toe.
“You much much like Jack,” he decided at last. And somehow, as Tee returned the man’s gaze, he felt that here, indeed, was a true friend. One in whom he could place the utmost confidence.
“You come stay with me when you like,” Malua invited. “Sail with me too. Same like your father. Your father an’ me friends always. Like very much, me.”
Tee wanted to tell Malua that he was going to like him as much as his father did; but he was a shy boy, and unable to put his strongest feelings into words.
Peter nodded assentingly, as if the boy had voiced his thoughts. “Yes,” he said, “I think you like me like Jack. Me too. I your friend always.”
Tee’s eyes widened with amazement; and a slow smile lit up Malua’s features.
“You surprise’, eh? … People I like, me see thoughts. Same with Jack.”
Tee was both embarrassed and excited. He had never dreamed of meeting anybody like Peter Malua. With such friends as this man and his Uncle Tom, what a life lay before him! In a flash he envisioned a future full of achievement and adventure, of manliness and bravery such as characterized these two who had been the nearest and dearest in his father’s life. Here, he felt, was a real link with his father. An indissoluble tie. And silently he made a contract with himself to live as Jack Tathom had lived: as Peter and Tom lived.