― 186 ―

Chapter XXI The First to Die

ALL day long, from the red blush of sunrise till the mantle of the quick, tropic night enshrouded the lonely island, thousands upon thousands of sea-birds circled round the high mountain peaks and vine-covered crags of Afitā, and filled the air with their wild clamour. At one place, where the grim cliffs started sheer upward from the crashing surf, they had made their rookeries upon a series of narrow ledges which traversed the face of the rock in undulating lines from the summit. The highest of these ledges was perhaps fifty feet from the scrub-covered edge of the precipice; the lowest just out of the reach of the drenching spray that in stormy weather sprang upward in misty showers from the wild commotion of the waves beneath.

Here, with faces turned seaward, the great black frigate birds and the blue-billed kanápu, with many other species of ocean rangers, sat upon their eggs and hatched their young, and the weird cries of the fledglings mingled with the hoarse, croaking notes of the parent birds all through the night, and were borne

  ― 187 ―
in strange, mournful cadences and mysterious quaverings through the darkened forest to the dwellings of the mutineers and their brown-skinned associates.

The eggs of these birds were much relished by the white men, and it was one of the duties of their patient wives to hazard their lives along the line of cliffs in collecting them. Sure-footed and agile, the women would sometimes be lowered by their companions above to the perilous ledges full fifty feet down, fill their baskets with eggs, and be hauled up again in safety, thinking nothing of the dreadful death that awaited them if the rope parted or they became overwhelmed with giddiness. The topmost ledge, where the fierce-eyed frigate birds had made their rookery, could be reached by clambering down the cliff and along its jagged face.

For two or three days great numbers of these sea-birds had been seen flying swiftly towards the island from the eastward, and the Tahitians understood that the breeding season drew near, and that very shortly the female birds would be sitting.

Early one morning Faito, the gentle, delicate-featured wife of the coarse and brutal Williams, set out along the edge of the cliffs to see if the frigate birds had begun to lay. She was alone. Heart-broken as she was at her husband's cruel conduct, her loving nature impelled her to venture her life upon the cliffs, so that she might be the first to bring the much-coveted eggs to her savage master.

Presently, as she walked along, softly singing to herself some chant of her Tahitian childhood, a pretty

  ― 188 ―
black and white kid—the progeny of one of the goats brought to the island in the Bounty—sprang out from the dense thicket scrub which bordered the mountain path, and darted along the edge of the precipice.

The cry of delight that escaped from Faito at the prospect of catching the animal reached the ears of Talalu, who was some few hundred yards away, cutting down a toa tree.

“Take care, take care, Faito,” he cried, as the girl sped swiftly along, her black hair streaming behind her, her dark eyes glowing, and her bare bosom panting in the excitement of pursuit—for she knew that the capture of the kid would at least bring a pleasant word from Williams; then, ere Talalu could shout another warning, her flying feet caught in a creeper, and without a cry she pitched headlong over the cliffs, with the sound of happy laughter yet upon her lips.

Dashing through the thick scrub, Talalu reached the edge of the precipice and looked over; there, on a little pebbly beach, hollowed out in the face of a chasm in the cliffs, he saw the dead and bleeding body of Faito lying upon the stones.

This was the prologue to a bloody tragedy yet to be enacted on Pitcairn.

Clambering down to the bottom of the cliffs by a devious and dangerous route, Talalu at last gained the spot where the body of the dead girl lay. He took it tenderly in his arms and pressed his face to hers, with streaming eyes and sobs of pity, then slowly and laboriously began the perilous ascent.

It was noon when he reached the settlement.

  ― 189 ―
Williams and Quintal were sitting together in front of the former's house when the Tahitian drew near with his burden.

“What the hell's the matter now?” asked the dead woman's husband roughly, when he saw his wife's figure lying in Talalu's brawny arms; then, brute though he was, his dark features paled when her countryman turned Faito's dead face towards him.

“Thy wife is dead, oh worker of iron. She sought to catch a kid, thinking to please thee. She tripped and fell—and died.”

Gently laying the body down upon the couch or mats, he walked away without a word.

The tidings of Faito's death soon brought the rest of the white men's wives to Williams' house, sobbing as they ran. The first to fling herself weeping upon the cold bosom of the dead girl was Nahi, the wife of Talalu. She was a tall, slenderly built woman, with big, passionate eyes, although she had the gentle, timid manner of a child. Seating herself by the body of the girl, Nahi first pressed her lips to the cold face of her friend, and then in whispered tones directed the others in their ministrations to the dead. Towards sunset, as they moved to and fro in the great room of the house, a figure darkened the doorway and Williams' harsh voice broke in upon the silence.

“Hallo, Nahi,” he said in English, without even glancing at the shrouded figure upon the floor, “how are you? It's not often I catch a sight of you—and, by God! you're too pretty a woman not to see often.”

Slowly Nahi rose to her feet. She understood every

  ― 190 ―
word that was said to her, yet curbed her anger, and with downcast eyes and trembling hands answered him in Tahitian.

“We come, Iron-worker, to mourn for Faito, thy wife.”

Something in her voice, and in her trembling, yet indignant attitude, made the callous-hearted man turn away without a further word. He stepped to the door, stood there irresolutely for a moment, and then disappeared into the darkness.

All through the night the mourning watchers sat beside the dead girl; at dawn the brown men dug her grave in the garden, some distance from the back of Williams' dwelling. Just as the sun became level with the summit of the cliffs and shot its bright darts through the leafy forest aisles, the little funeral procession gathered round the grave, and Faito's body, lying upon a bier covered with garlands and wreaths of flowers and leaves, was placed beside it. Then, one by one, each of the men and women brought offerings of food and young drinking coconuts and placed them by the bier, for to them the girl's soul was hovering near, and her body would need refreshment on its long journey to the world beyond. Nahi (who was not only a devoted friend of Faito, but a distant blood-relation as well), seated herself beside the grave, and in her soft Tahitian tongue, chanted stories of the dead girl's life; she sang of her innocent childhood, of her deep affection for her parents; of her loving, gentle nature; of her soft, tender beauty; of her love for the white iron-worker, and her voyage with him in

  ― 191 ―
the Bounty. And then the singer's soul seemed to quicken, and her voice quivered and broke as she told the story of Faito's death; and from those who sat around came quick, responsive sobs of grief.

When she ceased the women took keen-edged sharks' teeth, and thrust them into their arms and shoulders till the blood poured forth, while the men covered their faces with their hands, and bent their heads to the ground.

For nearly an hour they sat thus, then in silence the men rose and walked quietly away, leaving the women to mourn by themselves, in accordance with Tahitian custom, for two days beside the grave.

That night Mahina, who was alone in the house with her child, sought out Christian in his cave, where he had been for the past two days, and told him of Faito's death.

“Her troubles are over,” was his moody answer. “Would that I had the courage to leap over the cliffs and so end mine. But why come and tell me this? It concerns me not.”

“She was ever my friend,” answered Mahina, gently, “my friend and thine. I pray thee come mourn with me at her burial, else will shame fall upon me if thou art absent.”

He raised his dark face to hers, and an angry gleam shone in his eyes. “I tell thee, Mahina, thou dost but pester me. The woman is dead. Would I were in her place.”

“Thou cruel man,” she said, and the tears fell quickly from her eyes as she pressed her child to

  ― 192 ―
her bosom, “thou art always in this strange mood now. Alas! what evil has happened to thee and me? What wicked spirit has turned thy heart against us? Art thou tired of thy wife? Is thy child, born to thee out of my great love, hateful to thy sight?” Then the infant awoke, and she pressed it to her aching breast to soothe its cries.

Christian sprang up from the matted couch upon which he lay, and with the light of madness in his eyes, cursed her, her child, and himself. “Go,” he said at last, hoarsely, “go, leave me to my misery.”