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Part I

Ridan lived alone in a little hut on the borders of the big German plantation at Mulifenua, away down at the lee end of Upolu Island, and every one of his brown-skinned fellow-workers either hated or feared him, and smiled when Burton, the American overseer, would knock him down for being a 'sulky brute.' But no one of them cared to let Ridan see him smile. For to them he was a wizard, a devil, who could send death in the night to those he hated. And so when anyone died on the plantation he was blamed, and seemed to like it. Once, when he lay ironed hand and foot in the stifling corrugated iron 'calaboose,' with his blood-shot eyes fixed in sullen rage on Burton's angered face, Tirauro, a Gilbert Island native assistant overseer, struck him on the mouth and called him 'a pig cast up by the ocean.' This was to please the white man. But it did not, for Burton, cruel as he was, called Tirauro a coward and felled him at once. By ill-luck he fell within reach of Ridan, and in another moment the manacled hands had seized his enemy's throat. For five minutes the three men struggled together, the white overseer beating Ridan over the head with the butt of his heavy Colt's pistol, and then when Burton rose to his feet the two brown men were lying motionless together; but Tirauro was dead.

Ridan was sick for a long time after this. A heavy flogging always did make him sick, although he was so big and strong. And so, as he could not work in the fields, he was sent to Apia to do light labour in the cotton-mill there. The next morning he was missing. He had swum to a brig lying at anchor in the harbour and hidden away in the empty forehold. Then he was discovered and taken ashore to the mill again, where the foreman gave him 'a dose of Cameroons medicine'--that is, twenty-five lashes.

'Send him back to the plantation,' said the manager, who was a mere German civilian, and consequently much despised by his foreman, who had served in Africa. 'I'm afraid to keep him here, and I'm not going to punish him if he tries to get away again, poor devil.'

So back he went to Mulifanua. The boat voyage from Apia down the coast inside the reef is not a long one, but the Samoan crew were frightened to have such a man free; so they tied him hand and foot and then lashed him down tightly under the midship thwart with strips of green fau bark. Not that they did so with unnecessary cruelty, but ex-Lieutenant Schwartzkoff, the foreman, was looking on, and then, besides that, this big-boned, light-skinned man was a foreigner, and a Samoan hates a foreigner of his own colour if he is poor and friendless. And then he was an aitu a devil, and could speak neither Samoan, nor Fijian, nor Tokelau, nor yet any English or German.

Clearly, therefore, he was not a man at all, but a manu--a beast, and not to be trusted with free limbs. Did not the foreman say that he was possessed of many devils, and for two years had lived alone on the plantation, working in the field with the gangs of Tokelau and Solomon Island men, but speaking to no one, only muttering in a strange tongue to himself and giving sullen obedience to his taskmasters?

But as they talked and sang, and as the boat sailed along the white line of beach fringed with the swaying palms, Ridan groaned in his agony, and Pulu, the steersman, who was a big strong man and not a coward like his fellows, took pity on the captive.

'Let us give him a drink,' he said; 'he cannot hurt us as he is. Else he may die in the boat and we lose the price of his passage; for the white men at Mulifanua will not pay us for bringing to them a dead man.'

So they cast off the lashings of fau bark that bound Ridan to the thwart, and Pulu, lifting him up, gave him a long drink, holding the gourd to his quivering mouth--for his hands were tied behind him.

'Let him rest with his back against the side of the boat,' said Pulu presently; 'and, see, surely we may loosen the thongs around his wrists a little, for they are cutting into the flesh.'

But the others were afraid, and begged him to let well alone. Then Pulu grew angry and called them cowards, for, as they argued, Ridan fell forward on his face in a swoon.

When 'the devil' came to and opened his wearied, blood-shot eyes, Pulu was bathing his forehead with cold water, and his bruised and swollen hands were free. For a minute or so he gasped and stared at the big Samoan, and a heavy sigh broke from his broad naked chest. Then he put his hands to his face--and sobbed.

Pulu drew back in wondering pity--surely no devil could weep--and then, with a defiant glance at the three other Samoans, he stooped down and unbound Ridan's feet.

'Let him lie,' he said, going aft to the tiller. 'We be four strong men--he is but as a child from weakness. See, his bones are like to cut through his skin. He hath been starved.'

* * * * *

At dusk they ran the boat along the plantation jetty, and Pulu and another man led Rfdan up the path to the manager's house. His hands were free, but a stout rope of cinnet was tied around his naked waist and Pulu held the end.

'Ah, you dumb, sulky devil; you've come back to us again, have you?' said Burton, eyeing him savagely. 'I wish Schwartzkoff had kept you up in Apia, you murderous, yellow-hided scoundrel!'

'What's the use of bully-ragging him?' remarked the plantation engineer, with a sarcastic laugh; 'he doesn't understand a word you say. Club-law and the sasa {*} are the only things that appeal to him--and he gets plenty of both on Mulifanua. Hallo, look at that! Why, he's kissing Pulu's toe!'

* Whip.

Burton laughed. 'So he is. Look out, Pulu, perhaps he's a kai tagata' (cannibal). 'Take care he doesn't bite it off.'

Pulu shook his mop of yellow hair gravely. A great pity filled his big heart, for as he had turned to go back to the boat Ridan had fallen upon his knees and pressed his lips to the feet of the man who had given him a drink.

That night Burton and the Scotch engineer went to Ridan's hut, taking with them food and a new sleeping-mat. He was sitting cross-legged before a tiny fire of coco-nut shells, gazing at the blue, leaping jets of flame, and as the two men entered, slowly turned his face to them.

'Here,' said Burton, less roughly than usual,' here's some kai kai for you.'

He took the food from Burton's hand, set it beside him on the ground, and then, supporting himself on his gaunt right arm and hand, gave the overseer one long look of bitter, undying hatred; then his eyes drooped to the fire again.

'And here, Ridan,' said Craik, the engineer, throwing the sleeping-mat upon the ground, 'that'll keep your auld bones frae cutting into the ground. And here is what will do ye mair good still,' and he placed a wooden pipe and a stick of tobacco in 'the devil's' hand. In a moment Ridan was on his knees with his forehead pressed to the ground in gratitude.

The men looked at him in silence for a few moments as he crouched at Craik's feet, with the light of the fire playing upon his tattooed yellow back and masses of tangled black hair.

'Come awa', Burton, leave the puir deevil to himself. And I'm thinking ye might try him on the other tack awhile. Ye have not broken the creature's spirit yet, and I wouldna try to if I were you--for my own safety. Sit up Ridan, mon, and smoke your pipe.'

11 de Dezembro de 2014 às 07:56 0 Denunciar Insira 0
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