HAD not been in Tahiti long before I met Captain Nichols. He came in one morning when I was having breakfast on the terrace of the hotel and introduced himself. He had heard that I was interested in Charles Strickland, and announced that he was come to have a talk about him. They are as fond of gossip in Tahiti as in an English village, and one or two enquiries I had made for pictures by Strickland had been quickly spread. I asked the stranger if he had breakfasted.
“Yes; I have my coffee early,” he answered, “but I don’t mind having a drop of whisky.”
I called the Chinese boy.
“You don’t think it’s too early?” said the Captain.
“You and your liver must decide that between you,” I replied.
“I’m practically a teetotaller,” he said, as he poured himself out a good half-tumbler of Canadian Club.
When he smiled he showed broken and discoloured teeth. He was a very lean man, of no more than average height, with gray hair cut short and a stubbly gray moustache. He had not shaved for a couple of days. His face was deeply lined, burned brown by long exposure to the sun, and he had a pair of small blue eyes which were astonishingly shifty. They moved quickly, following my smallest gesture, and they gave him the look of a very thorough rogue. But at the moment he was all heartiness and good-fellowship. He was dressed in a bedraggled suit of khaki, and his hands would have been all the better for a wash.
“I knew Strickland well,” he said, as he leaned back in his chair and lit the cigar I had offered him. “It’s through me he came out to the islands.”
“Where did you meet him?” I asked.
“What were you doing there?”
He gave me an ingratiating smile.
“Well, I guess I was on the beach.”
My friend’s appearance
suggested that he was now in the same predicament, and I prepared myself to cultivate an agreeable acquaintance. The society of beach-combers always repays the small pains you need be at to enjoy it. They are easy of approach and affable in conversation. They seldom put on airs, and the offer of a drink is a sure way to their hearts. You need no laborious steps to enter upon familiarity with them, and you can earn not only their confidence, but their gratitude, by turning an attentive ear to their discourse. They look upon conversation as the great pleasure of life, thereby proving the excellence of their civilisation, and for the most part they are entertaining talkers. The extent of their experience is pleasantly balanced by the fertility of their imagination. It cannot be said that they are without guile, but they have a tolerant respect for the law, when the law is supported by strength. It is hazardous to play poker with them, but their ingenuity adds a peculiar excitement to the best game in the world. I came to know Captain Nichols very well before I left Tahiti, and I am the richer for his acquaintance. I do not consider that the cigars and whisky he consumed at my expense (he always refused cocktails, since he was practically a teetotaller), and the few dollars, borrowed with a civil air of conferring a favour upon me, that passed from my pocket to his, were in any way equivalent to the entertainment he afforded me. I remained his debtor. I should be sorry if my conscience, insisting on a rigid attention to the matter in hand, forced me to dismiss him in a couple of lines.
I do not know why Captain Nichols first left England. It was a matter upon which he was reticent, and with persons of his kind a direct question is never very discreet.