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Chapter XXIV The Quarrel

WHEN they reached the settlement, they found nearly all the little community assembled outside the large storehouse.

Williams himself was not among them, neither was Talalu; but Lunalio, a Raiatean girl, the wife of Martin, whispered to Nahi that he was coming. A look of joy overspread Nahi's face. She knew Williams' savage disposition and feared that Talalu had met with some treachery as he returned with his companions from fishing. And, indeed, Williams, with a loaded musket in his hand, had taken up his position behind a rock on the path leading up from the cliffs, intending to shoot the unsuspecting man as he ascended. But it so happened that Talalu, instead of taking the mountain track, came with his companions along the wider and more frequented path leading directly to the storehouse; and the white man, hiding his musket among the rocks, had waited till the natives were out of sight, and then followed them. A quarter of an hour later he sauntered coolly

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towards the assembled people, and the babble of excited tongues told him that the Tahitians were discussing with the whites his intention to appropriate Nahi.

A dead silence ensued the moment he made his appearance. Standing in front of the storehouse were the white men, most of them armed with muskets and cutlasses. Whether they were for or against him Williams could not for the moment tell, but he had no doubt of the feelings of the islanders, whose dark eyes blazed with hatred. A little apart from the rest of them stood Talalu, in his hand a keen-edged turtle-spear, and with a look of suppressed fury upon his face.

Squaring his shoulders, and placing his hands jauntily upon his hips, Williams bade the white men a mocking good-day.

“Quite a little gathering, I see. Ain't I got an invitation, or didn't you think my company good enough? Are you talking about me?” and he shot a fierce glance at Fletcher Christian, who regarded him with unmoved features.

“We are talking about you, Williams,” said Christian quietly, stepping out from the other white men. “What are you trying to do with this man's wife? For the peace of our little community—for God's sake—think before you go further.”

“That's all very fine, Mr. Christian,” he answered rudely, “but 'tis hard if I can't do as I choose with my own.”

Christian looked at him contemptuously. “Your

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own! What right have you to speak of this woman Nahi as yours?”

“Who are you to question my right? You are not an officer of the Bounty now.”

Christian's face paled at the insulting words, but he restrained himself.

“I do not ask you as a right, Williams, but as a favour, not to attempt this thing. I am sure every man but yourself sees that you will rue it if you do.”

“That is what I told him long ago,” broke in Quintal, who, rude and overbearing as he was in some respects to the Tahitians, was never tyrannical, and often tried to check Williams' brutality.

“I am glad to hear you say this, Quintal,” said Christian. “Williams does not seem to know what it is he contemplates.” His eye fell upon the stalwart figure of Talalu, who with gleaming eyes and clenched hands was looking at the persecutor of his wife.

“Come here, Talalu,” said Christian.

The islander looked at him for a moment; then thrusting the barbed point of his turtle-spear into the ground, he walked slowly over to the white man.

“What is it thou wouldst say to me, Kirisiani?” he asked in deep, guttural tones, which quivered with passion.

“This,” and Fletcher Christian's voice rang out loud and clear, as he pointed contemptuously to Williams—“this do I say. This Williams the Iron-worker is but a poor, uncultured slave, who knows naught that is good, and the evil in his heart hath killed all knowledge of what is right and just. I pray

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thee have patience with him, and we will try to teach him better.”

“What the hell do you mean?” asked Williams savagely, who understood Tahitian sufficiently well to know what Christian had said. “What sort of talk is this? Do you mean to tell this cursed, naked savage that he is a better man than I am?”

“Better than you! By heavens, you ruffian, you are a thousand times more of a savage than he? And I, who am to blame for bringing such men as him from their homes and exposing them to the danger of contact with such sweepings of the hulks as you are, will take care you do him or his countrymen no more wrong than you have done already.”

“No, no, Mr. Christian, don't talk like that,” said Brown. “Williams is as good a man as any of us, and I don't see why you should aggravate him by such words.”

“Damn such talk, I say,” said Mills insolently, walking apart from the others and standing beside Williams, “if the man wants the woman, let him have her. He ain't got a wife, and you can't expect a white man to go without one when one can be had for the taking.”

Talalu turned upon him. “I will kill him or any other man who tries to take my wife from me,” he muttered with set lips.

“None of that, my fine fellow,” said Brown in English. “Take care what you say about killing people. You will find that we can do some killing if we are put to it.”

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Williams looked at Christian with rage and hatred in his face. “What do you think of it now, Mr. Christian? Am I to do as I like and as my ship-mates want me to, or are you going to join with these damned savages and try to stop me?”

“I'll tell you plainly what I will do, Williams. I will protect these people at the hazard of my life; and though I stand alone I will prevent this outrage, even if I fight the whole lot of you.”

“He is mad to say this,” whispered Edward Young to Mahina, as he pressed her hand, “but,” and he gave her a meaning look, “for your sake, Mahina, I will stand by him.” Then he stepped out and stood beside her husband, and said—

“You'll not stand alone, Mr. Christian, while I am here. While I don't altogether agree with you, I don't believe in Williams taking the woman against her will. Let us come to some arrangement about her.”

“I, too, am with you, sir!” cried Smith.

“And I!” “And I!” echoed Quintal and McCoy.

“Thank you, my lads,” said Christian; “I knew there were some among us with a sense of justice.”

Williams looked at the four men one after another and folded his brawny arms across his tattooed chest.

“All right,” he sneered; “there's not going to be any fighting over this. But you can make certain of one thing. If you won't give me my own way in this matter you may go to hell, the whole lot of you, before I'll sweat at the Bounty's forge making tools for these cursed savages to till your ground. And yet,

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by God! I'll get my own way all the same in the end!”

Then he walked away towards his house.

“Trouble will come of this, mark my words, Mr. Christian,” said Brown. “ 'Tis a pity you should in-interfere with the man. You'll find he'll have the woman in spite of you, never fear.”

“Then his life will pay the penalty,” answered Christian fiercely. “You do not seem to understand, Brown, that while a single girl may be taken by force sometimes the marriage-tie among the Tahitians is held as sacred as among civilised people. But I think Talalu will take care of his wife, and there are three or four men who will help him to do so.”

Then, with a few words of farewell to the islanders who thronged around him with protestations of gratitude, he turned quickly away with Mahina by his side.

Before they had gone a hundred yards they heard some one running after them, and Nahi, flinging herself on the ground before Christian, clasped her arms around his knees and kissed his feet, wetting them with tears of gratitude.

That night Williams cooked and ate his supper alone, for Talalu and Nahi had taken shelter in the house of Tairoa-Maina, the Tubuaian chief.