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Chapter XXIII The Oppressor

FOR some time nothing happened to disturb the uneventful life of the islanders. Mahina, with aching heart, saw Christian daily grow more melancholy and morose, and was heedless of all else. But as the year drew to a close her saddened face and sorrowful eyes must have touched her husband's heart, and when the birth of her second child was drawing near he left the cave and dwelt with her till the infant was born and she was strong again.

“Call him Charles,” he said to her as she sat with with him one evening nursing the infant; and the words, simple as they were, filled her still loving heart with a great joy. Twice only had she met Young since the day of Faito's burial, and though he had tried to detain her, she managed to get away from him; for she now felt that he cared for her more than his loyalty to Alrema justified.

During the same year others of the mutineers became fathers. In addition to Mahina's two there were now three other children playing upon the

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matted floors of their parents' dwellings by day, and lulled to sleep at night by the ceaseless throbbing of the surf that beat against the stern cliffs of their island home.

The houses occupied by Christian and Mahina, Young and Alrema, and Smith and Terere were a considerable distance from those of the other white men. That of Christian was furthest north-west of all; indeed, it was quite shut out of view from the rest by a short, abrupt spur which shot eastward from the mountains almost to the verge of the beetling cliffs.

Williams and Young lived near to each other. Some months after the burial of Faito the former called upon his neighbour and asked him to come outside for a few minutes. Alrema, who had noticed that her husband and Williams were becoming very intimate, gave the visitor an angry glance from her dark, long-lashed eyes, as he sat upon the bench in front of the house.

“Let's go for a bit of a walk,” said Williams presently as Young joined him; “I want to have a talk with you over that little matter”; and he laughed coarsely, and by a gesture indicated his own dwelling.

Young nodded, and Alrema saw the two men saunter off together along the cliffs. She had always disliked Williams, and thought he was in some way responsible for her husband's manner to herself, which had so altered of late. Passionately fond of, and fiercely jealous of him, her quick perception of the change in his conduct filled her with a vague, undefined alarm; and although as yet she did not doubt

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his loyalty, she had seen how his face brightened visibly whenever Mahina and her child came to visit them. Of Mahina herself she had no misgivings; but it seemed strange that whereas in former days she had always accompanied Young to Christian's house, he now frequently went there alone, although she had told him that Christian was in his cave. Mahina, too, seemed different, and her face wore a troubled, nervous look which her friend could not understand.

After the birth of his second child Christian remained, for a time, constantly with his beautiful wife, whose face grew radiant with happiness. But soon his brooding mood returned to him in all its former force, and he resumed his lonely walks along the cliffs and spent his nights alone in his mountain cave. Mahina, Alrema knew, had long since resigned herself to her husband's fits of gloom, yet now she appeared more than ever a prey to melancholy. In some way Williams seemed to be connected with this, and Alrema noticed that whenever Young went to Christian's house Williams had preceded him there.

Taking up her infant daughter in her arms, Alrema went outside and sat down under the shade of a breadfruit tree to wait her husband's return. For nearly an hour she amused herself playing with the child, till, overpowered by the soft, languorous morning air, she, pillowing her head upon a rolled-up mat, slept.

The sun was high when she was awakened by hearing voices near. She at once recognised Williams' harsh, and her husband's cool, quiet tones. As they talked they were passing through the breadfruit grove

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and stopped quite close to where she lay. Williams was speaking.

“Well, that's understood. You stand by me and I'll stand by you. I'm going to get the woman I want if I have to shoot every damned red-skinned savage on the island to get her.”

“I'm not going in for anything like that,” she heard her husband reply; “I am quite content to wait till——”

“Till that lunatic jumps over the cliffs and leaves a widow for you,” said Williams, with a coarse laugh. “Well, you've got more patience than me. If I wanted her I'd make just as short a job of him as I mean to make of this Talalu. Anyway, I'm going to set you a good example by taking another wife. Man alive! what are you afraid of? She'll be willing enough before long to come to you. She ain't the kind of woman to stay by herself while her husband leaves her to live in a cave. I daresay,” he added, with another rude laugh, “that Alrema would lend you a hand to talk her over. That's what I'd have made Faito do.”

An angry exclamation of dissent from Young, and Alrema heard him leave his companion and go towards the house. Then, her brain reeling with dreadful suspicions of the man she loved and the friend she trusted, she took up her sleeping infant and followed him.

Williams, with a wicked look upon his evil face, strode away towards his own dwelling. He had managed to secure one of the best and most fertile

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portions of the nine lots into which the island was divided, and by his domineering conduct succeeded in making the islanders perform more labour in its cultivation than they expended upon any other of the mutineers' land. As he drew near his plantation he saw the gigantic figure of Talalu and the slender, graceful form of Nahi, his gentle wife, moving about in the garden. They were building a low wall of coral stones to enclose the plantation, and Williams' eyes gleamed savagely as he saw Nahi, who had just placed a stone in position, look up at her husband's face with a smile, to which Talalu responded with an endearing expression and a loving caress.

The white man stood for a while watching them. The woman's lithe, supple figure, her bared bosom and long mantle of black hair falling over her rounded shoulders fascinated and yet irritated his savage, sensuous nature. “That fellow, that cursed, great hulking brute to possess such a woman! And he only a slave!” He watched her white teeth gleam, as her lips parted in an admiring smile, when Talalu, raising a huge, jagged stone in his brawny arms, placed it lightly upon the smaller one her slender hands had lifted.

Williams sat and waited. He knew that at noontime they would cease working for an hour to rest and wait upon him while he ate his mid-day meal. And then he meant to act.

Presently, Talalu, glancing up at the sun, spoke to Nahi. They ceased their labours, and walked towards their own little dwelling of thatch. Outside stood a hollowed tree trunk filled with water. Then Williams

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saw Nahi, dropping the garment of tappa-cloth which encircled her waist, deftly replace it by a girdle of leaves, then her husband taking a cocoanut shell, dipped it into the water and poured it over her shoulders again and again to wash away the dust which stained her clear, bronzed skin. Nude to the hips, her lissome figure glinted and shone like a polished statue of metal in the bright morning sun, as the water ran down over her back, bosom, and legs, while her shapely arms were raised as she held up her glossy mantle of hair. Her bath finished, she took the coconut shell from her husband's hand and motioned him to stoop; but Talalu, with gentle, jesting rudeness, pushed her away, and filling the shell poured stream after stream of the cooling water over his own body.

“That's the last time you'll ever do that for her,” said Williams to himself, as his lustful eyes revelled in the beauty of the girl's figure. He got up, went inside and threw himself upon his couch. They would be in presently, he knew, to bring him his dinner of yams, fish, and birds' eggs.

Nahi came first. In one hand she carried a platter of woven coconut leaves, upon which were a baked fish and some roasted breadfruit, in the other a young drinking coconut. Outside, Talalu, thrusting a pointed stake into the ground, began to husk some more nuts for the white man to drink.

Haeri mai” (“Come here”), his master called.

The Tahitian's huge figure stood in the doorway, holding a half-husked coconut in his hand.

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“You needn't do any work to-day, Talalu,” said Williams, with a growl of apparent good nature. “Tetihiti and Nihu are going out fishing for Kawintali (Quintal). You may go with them. Nahi can stay. Malama (Quintal's wife) will be here soon with her husband, and she can help Nahi to work upon the mat she is making for the floor.”

“Good,” answered the unsuspecting Tahitian, with a pleased smile; “'tis well, oh Iron-worker, that the mat be soon finished. Then will Nahi and I carry up many baskets of fine pebbles, so that the mat may rest flat and even on the ground.”

“May you be lucky in your fishing,” called Nahi, as her husband, a minute later, passed the door, carrying his basket of fishing tackle. Then, the white man's meal being in readiness, she took up a fan and stood by him while he ate.

For some minutes he ate his food in silence, then motioned to the woman to come nearer. She obeyed him with a timid glance, and a slight tremor quivered her bare shoulders for a moment.

Suddenly Williams pushed his stool back from the table. Fixing his eyes on Nahi's expectant face, he said to her in English—

“Nahi, my girl, I've always had a fancy for you, and I want you. You're going to be my new wife.”

With a look of wild terror she shrank back, her hands covering her face. The next instant the man seized her by the wrists.

“Come, now, none of that, Nahi! I'm going to have you for my wife, so don't be a fool.”

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“Let me go,” she pleaded in Tahitian; “how can I be wife to thee? Am I not wife to Talalu? 'Tis but a poor jest to so frighten a weak woman.”

He laughed fiercely. “'Tis no jest. Thou art my desire and I will have thee. As for thy husband——” he made a contemptuous gesture.

The woman's eyes blazed. She tore her hands from his grasp and faced him. “Thou coward! He is better than thou art. He is of chief's blood—thou but a slave in thine own land,” and with a sudden spring she bounded through the open doorway and ran swiftly in the direction of the other white men's houses.

With panting bosom and gasping breath she reached Christian's house and darted inside. Mahina was seated on the matted floor crooning to her youngest child; Christian, as usual, was away at his cave.

Shaking with fear and anger, Nahi, generally so calm and gentle, flung herself at Mahina's feet and wept.

“What is this, friend of my heart?” asked Mahina, laying her infant down and drawing the girl's head upon her lap. She listened in grave silence until Nahi had finished her story, which ended in an earnest appeal. “Kirisiani,” she said, “was strong and powerful, and none of the white men dared face his anger. Surely he would not let the Iron-worker do this wrong.”

“The white men, I fear, care little what becomes of us of Tahiti now,” said Mahina sadly; “yet will we go to my husband and tell him thy trouble. Still

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do I fear that he will not heed thee; and then indeed must thou go to the Iron-worker.”

Nahi wept silently; when she ceased Mahina sought to comfort her, telling her that if the Iron-worker succeeded in taking her away from Talalu it would not be her fault—she would but yield to circumstances.

The woman turned her tear-stained face to Mahina in open wonder.

“What! Hast thou no other words of comfort for me than these? Put thyself in my place. How can I do this wrong to the man I love—he who hath toiled and fought for me? Wouldst thou so wrong thy husband as to listen to words of love from another man?”

“My husband!” — Mahina laughed bitterly. “Little does he care if other men speak words of love to me. His heart is dead, and I am but a leaf in his path.”

“Nay,” said Nahi gently, placing her hands on her friend's shoulder, “thy Kirisiani hath still a true heart for thee. He is not as these low-blooded dogs of sailors. He is an arii (a chief) of the same blood as Tuti; and the sailors fear him. Come then, dear friend, and join thy voice with mine, so that he may save me from the Iron-worker, whom I hate and fear.”

“We will go, Nahi. Yet hope for nothing. Kirisiani's love for us, which was once so strong and hot, has grown cold. For me, who would give my life for his, he cares naught. But a little while ago, when my babe was born, he was kind to me and sat by my

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side here when the sun sank in the sea, and let his hand rest in mine.” Her soft voice trembled in mournful pathos. “But again the black thoughts came to him, and he left me to return to his cave. He careth for me no longer. Yet will we go and pray him to protect thee from this evil man.”

In an hour the two women reached Christian's cave at the furthest extremity of the island. It opened from a high ridge of black, jagged, and almost inaccessible rocks. Near by was a tiny cascade, leaping noisily from ledge to ledge as it coursed towards the valley.

From its situation the cave commanded an extensive view of the horizon round the whole island, and its occupant would see a sail long before any one else on Pitcairn could discern it. Approach was so difficult that, even if a large party succeeded in crossing the dizzy, narrow ledge of rocks connecting it with the mountain spur beneath, Christian could have shot every one of them before they were within a hundred feet of his refuge.

As they passed through the little settlement on their mission, the two women called at the other houses, and told the story of Williams' design. Just as they reached the ridge they heard some one following them, and looking back saw the stalwart figure of Smith, who had come to help them in gaining Christian's assistance. Behind him came Young.

As the sound of their voices ascended to the heights, they saw Christian emerge from the cave. He was dressed in shirt and trousers only, and his long black

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hair hung, loose and neglected, about his shoulders. For a few moments he regarded them without speaking; then as Mahina in a timid voice said they desired to talk to him, he descended the ridge to meet them.

“Why is this?” he asked sullenly, with an angry look at each in turn; “am I to have no peace, no rest? Can I not live alone?”

Smith's honest, open face flushed deeply, but he said nothing; the women should speak first, he thought, then he would try.

Nahi, in a trembling voice, told her story, and sobbingly besought his help, and Mahina joined her in her earnest entreaties.

He heard them through in moody silence, and turned to Smith. “From the time of our landing here, on this cursed rock, I have avoided all interference with any of you. You have made slaves of these Tahitians, who are better than any white man on the island except yourself and Young. If they retaliate upon you, it will be your own faults. I don't say that you and Young are like the rest; but yet you have permitted those scoundrels, McCoy, Quintal, Mills, and Williams to oppress these unfortunate people. Still, I will make one more effort for the common good, and try to dissuade this ruffian from stealing Talalu's wife.”

“Well spoken, Mr. Christian,” said Smith. “By God! sir, I'll not see Talalu wronged in this fashion if you'll help me; and I dare swear Mr. Young will join us in clapping a stopper on his game.”

Accompanied by Nahi and Mahina, the three men

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returned to the settlement. As they walked, Young tried to speak to Mahina in a whisper, but with a nervous look she quickened her pace and caught up to her husband, who was in advance of them all.