― 61 ―

The Cost of the Boat

THE thunder of the surf on the lee shore filled the air, but it did not drown the singing of the women as they beat out the tappa cloth and kept time to the beating of the hammers. Luli, hushing her baby to rest, and watching her husband, the big white man with the fiery red beard, listened, and felt triumphant, too. She would have liked to join those singers, but she was the wife of the white man, and pride forbade, so she listened, and beat time softly with her hands while her husband slept.

“Oh, my phalangi, my phalangi, the white man, the red-haired white man,” they sang; “he has built us a boat, a boat. She is like the white man's ships; she has windows that twinkle in the sun, she is long and straight as a cocoa palm, and forty young men it takes to pull her across the waves. Oh, my phalangi, great shall his reward be. La, la-lo, la-la-la,” they sang, and in a minor key other voices took up the song, “Oh, my phalangi, my phalangi, hark to the band, the band; it is the white man's band,” and then another sound broke in which certainly even triumphant Luli could not describe as musical, for it was suspiciously like a sailing-ship's fog-horn. It was, in fact, a fog-horn which Paul Richon had simply annexed from a stranded copra schooner fast going to pieces on the outer reef. He had sold it to the men of Lofola for the promise of much copra, and taught them how to use it. At the sound of the hoarse blast Richon turned over, rubbed his eyes, and sat up.

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“Hallo, Luli, what's all this row about? They launched the boat last week, and made tow-row enough then to last them for a month of Sundays.”

Luli looked at him proudly. “The people of Ngati are coming—two canoes of thirty men each—to make talolo. Smidi builded them a boat, but it is no match for what my master has built.”

Richon lent lazily against the door-post and looked out across the still waters of the lagoon, marked on the other side by a few pandanus and a couple of cocoa-nut palms. To the little barrier at the door crawled the ubiquitous hermit crab, in all variety of shells, and old Tafua in a fishing canoe fished in eternal competition with the small boys spearing in the shallow water. There was nothing to break the monotony—blue sea, blue sky, white sand; so had the reef looked when Richon came there three years before, so would it look long after he was dead and gone. Not that he thought of that. His half-yearly struggle with the supercargo of the steamer from Sydney, touching the price of copra, took up all his thoughts.

“Feasting!” he said. “The devil! And that boat not paid for yet. I suppose the men from Soloma will be over next, and they'll be feasting all the niggers between here and the Fijis. Luli, you will go down to Suevi, and tell him I'll allow no feastings in this yere village till my boat is paid for. Go now. Vamoos.”

Luli rose to her feet, a graceful figure in her soft white cotton frock. Her silky black hair was smoothly brushed and rolled in a great coil on top of her head; there were red bibiscus flowers behind her ears, a wreath of sweet-scented white flowers round her neck, and her dark eyes were like stars—a comely, pretty girl of eighteen, with teeth like pearls, and just a tinge of colour showing through the brown of her cheeks. She left her baby lying on the mat at her feet, and held out her hands deprecatingly.

“Paul, the men of Lofola must entertain the men of Ngati! You would not shame the village!”

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“Oh, rats! Shame the village! The village is shamed already. Eight hundred dollars they owe me, and not so much as a pound of copra have they brought in yet. I'll shame them if they don't look out. Go down and tell Suevi if they don't ante up before they entertain these niggers, I'll bag the band; and if that don't bring them to their senses, I'll have the oars, and get the first man-of-war that comes along to burn their blooming village. Vamoos now.”

Still she looked at him with beseeching eyes. Surely this great, strong white man would make easier terms than that. He would not send her to her people, to her father, with such a message.

“Are you going, Luli?” he thundered, as a fresh burst of singing came to his ears.

The girl hesitated, and looked at him with piteous eyes. He was her god, poor little girl, in her eyes he could do no wrong; still it was a cruel message to take to her own people, and she made no movement.

Richon looked at her a moment angrily, then he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her lightly aside.

“Frightened, you silly little goose! What the dickens does it matter what a parcel of buck niggers think? You don't want that baby of yours to starve, I suppose, do you?” and he gave her a little shake. Then he stepped out of the gloom of the hut into the brilliant tropical sunshine.

The singing was louder now, the voices of the men were joining in, and far across the sea came the sound of other voices singing a strain of their own. He swore loud and deep as he made for the clump of dark green bananas that barred his view of the gap in the reef, and then the sound of running feet behind him made him turn, and he faced Suevi, a tall, lithe, dark man, young still, for all he was Luli's father. Richon stood squarely in front of the chief, and laid his hand on his arm.

“Hi, you black beggar, where the dickens are you going to?”

Suevi disengaged himself gently.

  ― 64 ―

“Richon,” he said reproachfully, “the young men of Ngati come.” It seemed to him that even the great and all-powerful white man must accept such an excuse.

Louder and louder blared the fog-horn, and wilder grew the singing. Even the thunder of the surf could not drown it.

“The young men of Ngati come in the boat that Smidi has built, but it is not a boat like the boat of the young men of Lofola.”

“The young men of Lofola be hanged! The young men of Lofola will pay for the boat if they want it. At present the boat is mine, do you hear, Suevi—the boat is mine?”

The chief looked at him, and held out his hands much as his daughter had done but a few minutes ago.

“We will pay, Richon; we will pay at once. The young men shall go and get in the copra at once.”

Three or four long, lanky pigs came racing past, driven by a naked, yelling boy. The preparations for the feast were beginning, and Richon cursed again at the waste. They would feast for the next two days, and then the village would be broke for the next three months.

“Look here, Suevi,” he said, “pay me at once.”

The chief did not understand much English, but he understood that.

“I will send out the young men to gather in the copra at once,” he said soothingly, trying to slip past. “We are poor, and the mission-house has taken much copra to build it.”

“Be hanged,” said the trader; “if you——” But the chief had slipped past, and was running down to the beach where the young men were already up to their waists in water, and the boats of the Ngati men, with their singing crews, were already just coming through the gap in the reef.

Richon followed sullenly. One of the boats was but an ordinary native canoe, but the other was a big white boat, with fifteen oars to a side, and louder and louder grew the singing. The Ngati men sang of their

  ― 65 ―
beautiful boat that skimmed over the water like a gull—the beautiful boat that Smidi, the trader, had made for seven hundred dollars' worth of copra. Louder than ever brayed the fog-horn, “the band,” and the Lofola men dashed into the water, chanting the praises of their boat, which was bigger and better in every way. On came the Ngati men—on, on, and shouting voices and pointing hands showed them where to beach their boat. On they came, on, on; and as they got into shallow water the crews jumped overboard, all but the chiefs. The Lofola men dashed into the water to help them, and they beached Smidi's masterpiece alongside Richon's. Then it was clearly seen that the men of Lofola had not boasted without cause.

In truth, she was a wonderful boat as she lay there on the white sand. Twenty oars on each side she carried, and her sides were built up in bulwarks, and, though there was no deck, these bulwarks were pierced with ports with windows in them. The body of the boat was white, and all the top part was painted a brilliant red. Her stem rose up in a wonderful carved figurehead, and her stern had miniature railings, like a man-of-war. A splendid boat, truly, no Samoan village could wish for a better; and Richon walked round her with the newcomers, and listened to the admiring remarks of the men from the other island.

The chief was a young man—younger than Suevi—and while the preparations for the feast were going on apace Richon suddenly found this chief beside him.

“It is a beautiful boat, oh, white man!” he said.

“Be d——d,” said Richon laconically. He was beginning to be tired of hearing the praises of his boat. He began to feel that a little substantial copra towards the eight hundred dollars that was owed him would be more to the point.

“It is a better boat than Smidi has built the young men of Ngati.”

“D——n,” said the trader again, and then he added suddenly, “Have you paid Smidi?”

“In full, oh, white man. Why not? There is plenty

  ― 66 ―
of copra in our village. The trader has not been for a year, and my young men are industrious. There is plenty of copra. But the boat of Smidi is not like the boat of Richon. The boat of Richon is worth much copra.”

“Probably it is, but Richon ain't got any.”

The chief evidently had a proposition to make, and was debating in his own mind how to put it. This white man belonged to the village of Lofola, and the village would not be exactly pleased if he interfered with their vested rights. Then he plunged.

“Will the white man make the young men of Ngati a boat like that?”

“If the young men of Ngati will pay me eight hundred dollars' worth of copra I will make them a—— Hold on, chief. Do you like this boat? It belongs to me—you savez—to me—to me. For eight hundred dollars in copra I will sell you that boat.”

The chief looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then his eyes wandered to the beautiful boat. No village among all the islands had such a boat, and there was store of copra in their village.

“The young men of Lofola——” began Lofola's guest doubtfully.

“Hang the young men of Lofola! If they want a boat they must pay for it. They know that well enough. See you here, chief. See that schooner?” He pointed to a little trading schooner that lay at anchor inside the reef. “You put eight hundred dollars' worth of copra on board Misi O'Brien's schooner soon as you go back, and then you shall have the boat. She is yours.”

The chief's dark eyes glistened, and he nodded once or twice, and Richon chuckled to himself, for he felt that he was thoroughly understood. If they had the copra, and he doubted not that they had, they would pay, and take the boat, and his spirits rose, and he watched the feasting and the singing with a mind more at peace with the world.

Eight hundred dollars' worth of copra on board

  ― 67 ―
O'Brien's schooner, and already he had shipped about six hundred dollars' worth, and he had not seen civilisation for over three long years. He would go back to Sydney and have a roaring time of it. My word, what a time he could have with one thousand four hundred dollars in his pocket; he would cut the reef and all the stinking niggers. Pah! how they reeked of cocoa-nut oil. He never wanted to see one of their kind again. Once away, back to the reef he would never come. He would save enough money to go pearling about Torres Straits. That trade gave a man a chance of making his pile. Money did not come in in driblets there as it did here—or, rather, as it did not here. Luli could go back to her people; and then the man paused in his thoughts, and noted the long black shadows of the cocoa-nut palms creeping across the sands. Luli could go back to her people, of course—but—but—— And no one could have been more astonished at his feelings than he was himself. It actually gave him a pang to think of parting with Luli—Luli, with the soft eyes and golden skin—Luli, whom he never considered in any way—Luli, his chattel and slave. She should go back to her own people, and—he ground his heels into the sand and spat forcibly—he could easily get a Japanese wife. The Japanese women, O'Brien said——

D——n! he would have none of your almond-eyed, flat-faced women; but at least he could not have Luli and the brat hanging on to him, and bothering him. She should have the hut and all his things, and she should go back to her own people, and he marched back to his hut, and when he found it was empty he cursed all women by his gods.

But Luli was not away long. Presently, just as the sun was setting, she came stealing back, and looked at him with somewhat scared eyes.

“Paul, is it true, is it true?” she whispered, as she slipped about making preparations for his supper. “Old Tisino has said that you have sold the boat, the boat of the young men of Lofola, to the chief Tamatanni

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for much copra. You would not sell the boat of the young men, my husband?” and she came and looked up beseechingly.

“And there you're mistaken, Luli, my girl. Why should I not sell my own boat? If Suevi and his people won't give the copra, Tamatanni and his people will.”

She set before him plantains baked and folded in green leaves, and roast pork from the village feast, and she opened a green cocoa-nut, and poured in a goodly nip of whisky, for so the trader liked his drink, and she sat beside him, and looked at him with soft, tender eyes, and smoothed his knee with her little brown hand. He remembered he was leaving her, and he patted her hand once or twice, and her eyes glowed, and her lips murmured all manner of tender things in her own soft tongue. She was pretty and dainty, he thought in his own rough way; and yet some day, he supposed, after he had left her, she would grow old and withered like old Tisino, who had been a white man's wife once, they said.

And when he had finished his meal he strolled down to the village again. It was full moon, and the golden light made everything light as day, save where the deep, dark shadows made blackest night. And all the village was feasting. He smiled now to himself as he listened to the loud singing, all in praise of the boat which was not theirs, and never would be theirs; and when the braying of the fog-horn broke in, and almost drowned the singing, he simply laughed aloud, marched straight up to Levi Levi, the vice-chief, who was proudly blowing it, and snatched it out of his hand.

“My friend, you'll earn that there horn before you perform, and I'm inclined to think the earnings'll come too late.”

Levi Levi looked at him in blank astonishment, and the singing for a moment died down. Was it possible—was it actually possible—that their white man, their own white man, was putting this insult upon them before the young men of Ngati? Then the singing rose again, loud and clear.

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“He has taken the band, the band, oh, my phalangi; he has taken the band. From Levi Levi he has taken the band.”

“He has,” said Richon. “He has indeed, and, what's more, he intends to stick to it,” and as he strode back to his hut he laughed, for it seemed to him the singing took on a wailing sound.

Luli looked at him with pitiful eyes as he came into the hut and hung up the fog-horn over his bunk. Poor little girl, the delight of the day had gone for her. A very woman she was by her two loves; for she loved her own people, the men of the reef, and she loved the big stranger whose preference had given her honour in their eyes, and now, behold, her people and her white man were at variance. And fear came into her heart, for she knew what the end of that would be. Tisino said all white men went away, always, always, always; and she had pointed to her own son, the big, ugly “affi-tassi” (half-caste), as evidence thereof. Would Paul go away and leave her, and would she grow old like Tisino, who was all wrinkles; and would her little Paul be like Tisino's son? True, Paul had married her in the mission-house after the white man's fashion, and she wore on the third finger of her left hand a ring after the fashion of the women of Paul's own people; but she knew too much about the ways of the average South Sea trader to think that that would keep him for a moment. He had taken from her people their treasured band, and that was the beginning of the end. The boat would go next, and then he would go in Misi O'Brien's schooner; and she leaned up against the wall and nursed her baby, and sobbed silently, so that she might not wake the sleeping white man whom she loved. She had been so sure of her power over him till to-day, and now she felt that power was but a poor, weak thing. He belonged to another world than hers, and he meant to leave her.

And next day the feasting still went on, but the attitude of the villagers had changed towards their white man. He felt it the moment he stepped outside

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his hut. Suevi avoided him. When he would have spoken to him the chief slipped away. Levi Levi would not even look his way; no one offered him plantains, no one asked him to help at the feast. The people sang only of the Ngati men now, and their approaching departure. He went back to his hut, and brought out the fog-horn, but no one came near him; no one so much as looked at it, though he knew well enough that, next to the boat, it was their most treasured possession.

Then he got into his canoe, and paddled across the lagoon to O'Brien's schooner, and with that gentleman made all arrangements for his approaching departure.

“You'd better stop now,” suggested O'Brien. “Them niggers get mighty nasty when they're crossed.”

Richon hesitated. “There's fifty dollars' worth of copra owing me I think I can get in,” he said. “It 'ud be a pity to leave it, and I reckon the buck nigger ain't born yet can scare Paul Richon,” and not even to himself would he acknowledge that he wanted to look once more at Luli's dark eyes, to feel the touch of her soft little hand once again.

And yet it was time he was gone. Very reluctantly he acknowledged that to himself. The night had fallen when he landed on the reef again, and as he walked across the sand in the bright moonlight the throwing wands of the playing boys came suspiciously near his head, and yet no older man cuffed the boys for their impertinence to the honoured white man. He was honoured no longer. Unless he promised them the boat, promised to allow them to pay in their own time, which would be never now, his reign was over. Time he cleared out; certainly time he cleared out—he would go this very night.

As he entered the hut Luli sprang forward and caught him in her arms.

“Paul, Paul!” and as the moonlight fell full on her face he saw she had been crying. It spoiled her beauty, and he thought it had only been her beauty that he had cared about.

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“Get out, you little fool!” he said. “What's the matter?”

“I thought you had gone; I thought you would never come back. And you have come back, you have come,” and the tender love deepened in her eyes.

“When the boys of your people shy their throwing wands at my head it's time for me to git,” he said, but he put his arm around her not unkindly. “The young men will be throwing something heavier before long.”

“It is the boat,” she murmured.

“I've sold the boat to the Ngati men,” he said. Where was the good of hiding the fact any longer? He would go on board the schooner now, at once. He wondered why he lingered. What a fool he was risking his life for a girl's fair face. It made him angry to think he hesitated to shake off those tender, clinging hands. “Let go now, Luli, you little fool; what are you crying for?”

Still she clung to him. “You are leaving me, you are leaving me, and you married me in the mission-house, in the white man's fashion, and you said you would keep me when I was old—old as Tisino.”

“Oh, get out, Luli, you little idiot; I'll come back when this row has blown over.”

“Yes, yes, you'll come back,” she pleaded; “but take me with you on board Misi O'Brien's schooner. Who will cook your food and wash your clothes? Take me, take me!”

He burst into a roar of laughter, and stepped outside into the brilliant moonlight, the girl still clinging to him. Had she but known it, there was little real mirth in that laughter. The picture of himself in O'Brien's dirty, evil-smelling schooner without her was not attractive, and he needed to promise himself over and over again a jolly good spree in Sydney before he could reconcile himself to it. Who ever heard of a man sticking to his native wife? The thing was preposterous. How O'Brien would yell at the idea of his hesitating a moment!

“Take me,” pleaded the soft voice in his ear; “take

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me,” and her hands held his against her breast. The voice grew softer and firmer and more caressing, for somehow she felt that she was gaining her point, and a wondering gladness grew in her heart. He would not treat her as old Tisino had been treated, her great, good, white man. He must go, she saw that; but he would take her with him, and her anxious voice grew more tender and more triumphant. “You will take me, you will take me.”

“By the living Jingo, I shall be the laughing-stock of the South Pacific.”

“Oh, my white man,” she whispered proudly. “I said you were great and good. Who is there like my white man? Let us go back now, and gather together the things and the band, for it is time for us to go. Before the sun comes up out of the sea we must go, for my people are angry.”

“Little goose, I didn't say I would take you, and you'll be lonely away from your own people.”

“Come, come,” she pleaded; “the night is passing.”

The revelry in honour of the Ngati men had reached a stage when feasters and feasted alike slept the sleep of the overfed. The village was still and silent, save for an occasional shout or song from the boys, who were feasting now their elders had finished.

They had stopped opposite the big clump of bananas, and Richon looked down on Luli's fair face, and saw that her bright eyes looked tender and happy through her tears.

“Who'd 'a thought I'd 'a been such an all-fired idiot?” he said. “For the snap——”

A short, sharp bark from the clump of bananas—“zip, zip,” and in one moment he was stupidly staring at Luli. She had fallen against him, and a broad, red stain that grew and grew was deepening on her cotton frock. He put his arms round her, and pillowed her head on his shoulder, and a great fear came into his heart. She was not going to be a drag upon him after all.

“Luli, Luli, silly little Luli.” It was the tenderest

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term he knew, and tenderness sat strangely on his unaccustomed lips.

But she understood, and the soft eyes looked up lovingly. All that was good in the hard, rough South Sea trader the little Samoan girl had found.

“You must go,” she gasped. “You must go; and you will take little——”

Then the light died out of her eyes, and her hands fell. The girl he had tried to leave behind him had left him.

For a moment he looked at her dazed, then he picked her up and carried her back to the hut, and laid her on her own mat. The child on the floor crept over and patted its mother's dead face, but he took no notice. He loaded his revolver, thrust it into his belt, and marched straight down to the chief's house. There was only one man on the reef had a rifle, and that was Suevi, and he only had four cartridges. He had not purposely killed his daughter, Richon knew. Only for one man would he waste a cartridge, and that shot had been for the owner of the boat.

The mats were drawn all round the house. It stood out plainly in the moonlight, and signified that the chief slept. The trader knew better. He stepped up and roughly drew the mats aside, and, as the moonlight streamed in, he saw Suevi on his mat apparently sleeping. Just above his head hung the precious Snider, the Snider that had not been fired for more than a year to his certain knowledge. Richon snatched it down, and put his nose to the breech.

“I thought so. That shot was intended for me, was it? Then, Mr Suevi, we'll——”

But the chief saw his hand on his revolver, and darted for his hatchet. Quick as thought he dashed across the hut, but Richon was quicker. He got between him and the village. Suevi turned, and as he passed dealt the white man a savage blow that cut into his shoulder, then he made for the cocoa-nut palms. First he was in the moonlight, then he was in the shadow, and Richon was dazed by the blow, but he was not going

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to let the man who had slain Luli escape him, and he ran, stumbling, after him. He was quite close to him, and the next time the dark figure appeared clean cut against the white sand he fired. There was a sharp cry that told him he had not missed. The figure reeled a moment, but it gained the shadow, and he went after it. Now, now to get another shot in, and then the canoe and O'Brien's trading schooner. He listened, but he could hear nothing but the thunder of the surf and the wind in the palm fronds. Then something moved just behind him. He turned quickly. A hatchet came hurtling through the air, and as the chief staggered forward he fell over the body of his white man, who preceded him to the unknown land by but a few minutes.

Old Schmidt, a solid, phlegmatic German from Nukaililai, has taken over the station at Lofola.

Schmidt says he does not build boats.