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The Fate Of The Alida by Louis Becke

 

THREE years ago, in an Australian paper, I read something that set me thinking of Taplin -- of Taplin and his wife, and the fate of the Alida. This is what I read:--

"News has reached Tahiti that a steamer had arrived at Toulon with two noted prisoners on board. These men, who are brothers named Rorique, long ago left Tahiti on an island-trading trip, and when the vessel got to sea they murdered the captain, a passenger, the supercargo (Mr Gibson, of Sydney), and two sailors, and threw their bodies overboard. The movers in the affair were arrested at Ponape, in the Caroline Islands. The vessel belonged to a Tahitian prince, and was called the Nuroahiti, but its name had been changed after the tragedy. The accused persons were sent to Manilla. From Manilla they appear now to have been sent on to France."

In the year 1872 we were lying inside Funafuti Lagoon, in the Ellice Group. The last cask of oil had been towed off to the brig and placed under hatches, and we were to sail in the morning for our usual cruise among the Gilbert and Kingsmill Islands.

Our captain, a white trader from the shore, and myself, were sitting on deck "yarning" and smoking. We lay about a quarter of a mile from the beach -- such a beach, white as the driven snow, and sweeping in a great curve for five long miles to the north and a lesser distance to the south and west. Right abreast of the brig, nestling like huge birds' nests in the shade of groves of coconut and bread-fruit trees, were the houses of the principal village in Funafuti.

Presently the skipper picked up his glasses that lay beside him on the skylight, and looked away down to leeward, where the white sails of a schooner beating up to the anchorage were outlined against the line of palms that fringed the beach of Funafala -- the westernmost island that forms one of the chain enclosing Funafuti Lagoon.

"It's Taplin's schooner, right enough," he said. "Let us go ashore and give him and his pretty wife a hand to pack up."

. . . . .

Taplin was the name of the only other white trader on Funafuti besides old Tom Humphreys, our own man. He had been two years on the island, and was trading in opposition to our trader, as agent for a foreign house -- our owners were Sydney people -- but his firm's unscrupulous method of doing business had disgusted him. So one day he told the supercargo of their vessel that he would trade for them no longer than the exact time he had agreed upon -- two years. He had come to Funafuti from the Pelews, and was now awaiting the return of his firm's vessel to take him back there again. Getting into our boat we were pulled ashore and landed on the beach in front of the trader's house.

"Well, Taplin, here's your schooner at last," said old Tom, as we shook hands and seated ourselves in the comfortable, pleasant-looking room. "I see you're getting ready to go."

Taplin was a man of about thirty or so, with a quiet, impassive face, and dark, deep-set eyes that gave to his features a somewhat gloomy look, except when he smiled, which was not often. Men with that curious, far-off look in their eyes are not uncommon among the lonely islands of the wide Pacific. Sometimes it comes to a man with long, long years of wandering to and fro; and you will see it deepen when, by some idle, chance word, you move the memories of a forgotten past -- ere he had even dreamed of the existence of the South Sea Islands and for ever dissevered himself from all links and associations of the outside world.

. . . . .

"Yes," he answered, "I am nearly ready. I saw the schooner at daylight, and knew it was the Alida."

"Where do you think of going to, Taplin?" I asked.

"Back to the Carolines. Nerida belongs down that way, you know; and she is fretting to get back again -- otherwise I wouldn't leave this island. I've done pretty well here, although the people I trade for are -- well, you know what they are."

"Aye," assented old Humphreys, "there isn't one of 'em but what is the two ends and bight of a -- scoundrel; and that supercargo with the yaller moustache and womany hands is the worst of the lot. I wonder if he's aboard this trip? I don't let him inside my house; I've got too many daughters, and they all think him a fine man."

. . . . .

Nerida, Taplin's wife, came out to us from an inner room. She was a native of one of the Pelew Islands, a tall, slenderly-built girl, with pale, olive skin and big, soft eyes. A flowing gown of yellow muslin -- the favourite colour of the Portuguese-blooded natives of the Pelews -- buttoned high up to her throat, draped her graceful figure. After putting her little hand in ours, and greeting us in the Funafuti dialect, she went over to Taplin, and touching his arm, pointed out the schooner that was now only a mile or so away, and a smile parted her lips, and the star-like eyes glowed and filled with a tender light.

I felt Captain Warren touch my arm as he rose and went outside. I followed.

. . . . .

"L----," said Warren, "can't we do something for Taplin ourselves? Isn't there a station anywhere about Tonga or Wallis Island that would suit him?"

"Would he come, Warren? He -- or, rather, that pretty wife of his -- seems bent upon going away in the schooner to the Carolines."

"Aye," said the skipper, "that's it. If it were any other vessel I wouldn't care." Then suddenly:

"That fellow Motley (the supercargo) is a damned scoundrel -- capable of any villainy where a woman is concerned. Did you ever hear about old Raymond's daughter down at Mangareva?"

I had heard the story very often. By means of a forged letter purporting to have been written by her father -- an old English trader in the Gambier Group -- Motley had lured the beautiful young half-blood away from a school in San Francisco, and six months afterwards turned her adrift on the streets of Honolulu. Raymond was a lonely man, and passionately attached to his only child; so no one wondered when, reaching California a year after and finding her gone, he shot himself in his room at an hotel.

. . . . .

"I will ask him, anyway," I said; and as we went back into the house the Alida shot past our line of vision through the coco-palms, and brought up inside the brig.

"Taplin," I said, "would you care about taking one of our stations to the eastward? Name any island you fancy, and we will land you there with the pick of our 'trade' room."

"Thank you. I would be only too glad, but I cannot. I have promised Nerida to go back to Babelthouap, or somewhere in the Pelews, and Motley has promised to land us at Ponape, in the Carolines. We can get away from there in one of the Dutch firm's vessels."

"I am very sorry, Taplin----" I began, when old Captain Warren burst in with -- "Look here, Taplin, we haven't got much time to talk. Here's the Alida's boat coming, with that (blank blank) scoundrel Motley in it. Take my advice. Don't go away in the Alida." And then he looked at Nerida, and whispered something.

A red spark shone in Taplin's dark eyes, then he pressed Warren's hand.

"I know," he answered, "he's a most infernal villain -- Nerida hates him too. But you see how I am fixed. The Alida is our only chance of getting back to the north-west. But he hasn't got old Raymond to deal with in me. Here they are."

. . . . .

Motley came in first, hat and fan in hand. He was a fine-looking man, with blue eyes and an unusually fair skin for an island supercargo, with a long, drooping, yellow moustache. Riedermann, the skipper, who followed, was stout, coarse, red-faced, and brutal.

"How are you, gentlemen?" said Motley affably, turning from Taplin and his wife, and advancing towards us. "Captain Riedermann and I saw the spars of your brig showing up over the coconuts yesterday, and therefore knew we should have the pleasure of meeting you."

Warren looked steadily at him for a moment, and then glanced at his outstretched hand.

"The pleasure isn't mutual, blarst you, Mr Motley," he said coldly, and he put his hand in his pocket.

The supercargo took a step nearer to him with a savage glare in his blue eyes. "What do you mean by this, Captain Warren?"

"Mean?" and the imperturbable Warren seated himself on a corner of the table, and gazed stolidly first at the handsome Motley and then at the heavy, vicious features of Riedermann. "Oh, anything you like. Perhaps it's because it's not pleasant to see white men landing at a quiet island like this with revolvers slung to their waists under their pyjamas; looks a bit too much like Bully Hayes' style for me," and then his tone of cool banter suddenly changed to that of studied insolence. "I say, Motley, I was talking about you just now to Taplin and Nerida. Do you want to know what I was saying? Perhaps I had better tell you. I was talking about Tita Raymond -- and yourself."

. . . . .

Motley put his right hand under his pyjama jacket, but Taplin sprang forward, seized his wrist in a grip of iron, and drew him aside.

"The man who draws a pistol in my house, Mr Motley, does a foolish thing," he said, in quiet, contemptuous tones, as he threw the supercargo's revolver into a corner.

With set teeth and clenched hands Motley flung himself into a chair, unable to speak.

Warren, still seated on the table, swung his foot nonchalantly to and fro, and then began at Riedermann.

"Why, how's this, Captain Ricdermann? Don't you back up your supercargo's little quarrels, or have you left your pistoL on board? Ah, no, you haven't. I can see it there right enough. Modesty forbids you putting a bullet into a man in the presence of a lady, eh?" Then slewing round again, he addressed Motley: "By God! sir, it is well for you that we are in a white man's house, and that that man is my friend and took away that pistol from your treacherous hand. If you had fired at me I would have booted you from one end of Funafuti beach to the other -- and I've a damned good mind to do it now, but won't, as Taplin has to do some business with you."

"That will do, Warren," I said. "We don't want to make a scene in Taplin's house. Let us go away and allow him to finish his business."

Still glaring angrily at Riedermann and Motley, Warren got down slowly from the table. Then we bade Taplin and Nerida good-bye and went aboard.

At daylight we saw Taplin and his wife go off in the Alida's boat. They waved their hands to us in farewell as the boat pulled past the brig, and then the schooner hove-up anchor, and with all sail set, stood away down to the north-west passage of the lagoon.

A year or so afterward we were on a trading voyage to the islands of the Tubuai Group, and were lying becalmed, in company with a New Bedford whaler. Her skipper came on board the brig, and we started talking of Taplin, whom the whale-ship captain knew.

"Didn't you hear?" he said. "The Alida never showed up again. 'Turned turtle,' I suppose, somewhere in the islands, like all those slashing, over-masted, 'Frisco-built schooners do, sooner or later."

"Poor Taplin," said Warren, "I thought somehow we would never see him again."

. . . . .

Five years had passed. Honest old Warren, fiery-tempered and true-hearted, had long since died of fever in the Solomons, and I was supercargo with a smart young American skipper in the brigantine Palestine, when we one day sailed along the weather-side of a tiny little atoll in the Caroline Islands.

The Palestine was leaking, and Packenham, tempted by the easy passage into the beautiful lagoon, decided to run inside and discharge our cargo of copra to get at the leak.

The island had but very few inhabitants -- perhaps ten or twelve men and double that number of women and children. No ship, they told us, had ever entered the lagoon but Bully Hayes' brig, and that was nine years before. There was nothing on the island to tempt a trading vessel, and even the sperm whalers, as they lumbered lazily past from Strong's Island to Guam, would not bother to lower a boat and "dicker" for pearl-shell or turtle.

At the time of Hayes' visit the people were in sore straits, and on the brink of actual starvation, for although there were fish and turtle in plenty, they had not the strength to catch them. A few months before, a cyclone had destroyed nearly all the coconut trees, and an epidemic followed it, and carried off half the scanty population.

. . . . .

The jaunty sea-rover -- than whom a kinder-hearted man to natives never sailed the South Seas -- took pity on the survivors, especially the youngest and prettiest girls, and gave them a passage in the famous Leonora to another island where food was plentiful. There they remained for some years, till the inevitable mal du pays that is inborn to every Polynesian and Micronesian, became too strong to be resisted; and so one day a wandering sperm whaler brought them back again.

But in their absence strangers had come to the island. As the people landed from the boats of the whale-ship, two brown men, a woman, and a child, came out of one of the houses, and gazed at them. Then they fled to the farthest end of the island and hid.

Some weeks passed before the returned islanders found out the retreat of the strangers, who were armed with rifles, and called them to "come out and be friends." They did so, and by some subtle treachery the two men were killed during the night.

The woman, who was young and handsome, was spared, and, from what we could learn, had been well treated ever since.

"Where did the strangers come from?" we asked.

That they could not tell us. But the woman had since told them that the ship had anchored in the lagoon because she was leaking badly, and that the captain and crew were trying to stop the leak when she began to heel over, and they had barely time to save a few things when she sank. In a few days the captain and crew left the island in the boat, and, rather than face the dangers of a long voyage in such a small boat, the two natives and the woman elected to remain on the island.

"That's a mighty fishy yarn," said Packenham to me. "I daresay these fellows have been doing a little cutting-off business. But then I don't know of any missing vessel. We'll go ashore to-morrow and have a look round."

A little after sunset the skipper and I were leaning over the rail, watching the figures of the natives, as they moved to and fro in the glare of the fires lighted here and there along the beach.

"Hallo!" said Packenham, "here's a canoe coming, with only a woman in it. By thunder! she's travelling, too, and coming straight for the ship."

A few minutes more and the canoe was alongside. The woman hastily picked up a little girl that was sitting in the bottom, looked up, and called out in English --

"Take my little girl, please."

A native sailor leant over the bulwarks and lifted up the child, and the woman clambered after her. Then, seizing the child from the sailor, she flew along the deck and into the cabin.

She was standing facing us as we followed and entered, holding the child tightly to her bosom. The soft light of the cabin lamp fell full upon her features, and we saw that she was very young, and seemed wildly excited.

"Who are you?" we said, when she advanced, put out a trembling hand to us, and said: "Don't you know me, Mr Supercargo? I am Nerida, Taplin's wife." Then she sank on a seat and sobbed violently.

. . . . .

We waited till she regained her composure somewhat, and then I said: "Nerida, where is Taplin?"

"Dead," she said in a voice scarce above a whisper; "only us two are left -- I and little Teresa."

Packenham held out his hands to the child. With wondering, timid eyes, she came, and for a moment or two looked doubtingly upwards into the brown, handsome face of the skipper, and then nestled beside him.

For a minute or so the ticking of the cabin clock broke the silence, ere I ventured to ask the one question uppermost in my mind.

"Nerida, how and where did Taplin die?"

"My husband was murdered at sea," she said and then she covered her face with her hands.

"Don't ask her any more now," said Packenham pityingly; "let her tell us to-morrow."

She raised her face. "Yes, I will tell you to-morrow. You will take me away with you, will you not, gentlemen -- for my child's sake?"

"Of course," said the captain promptly. And he stretched out his honest hand to her.

. . . . .

"She's a wonderfully pretty woman," said Packenham, as we walked the poop later on, and he glanced down through the open skylight to where she and the child slept peacefully on the cushioned transoms. "How prettily she speaks English, too. Do you think she was fond of her husband, or was it merely excitement that made her cry? -- native women are as prone to be as hysterical as our own when under any violent emotion."

"I can only tell you, Packenham, that when I saw her last, five years ago, she was a graceful girl of eighteen, and as full of happiness as a bird is of song. She looks thirty now, and her face is thin and drawn -- but I don't say all for love of Taplin."

"That will all wear off by and by," said the skipper confidently.

"Yes," I thought, "and she won't be a widow long."

. . . . .

Next morning Nerida had an hour or two among the prints and muslin in the trade-room, and there was something of the old beauty about her when she sat down to breakfast with us. We were to sail at noon. The leak had been stopped, and Packenham was in high good-humour.

"Nerida," I inquired unthinkingly, "do you know what became of the Alida? She never turned up again."

"Yes," she answered; "she is here, at the bottom of the lagoon. Will you come and look at her?"

After breakfast we lowered the dingy, the captain and I pulling. Nerida steered us out to the north end of the lagoon till we reached a spot where the water suddenly deepened. It was, in fact, a deep pool, some three or four hundred feet in diameter, closed in by a continuous wall of coral rock, the top of which, even at low water, would be perhaps two or three fathoms under the surface.

She held up her hands for us to back water, then she gazed over the side into the water.

"Look," she said, "there lies the Alida."

. . . . .

We bent over the side of the boat. The waters of the lagoon were as smooth as glass and as clear. We saw two slender rounded columns that seemed to shoot up in a slanting direction from out the vague, blue depths beneath, to within four or five fathoms of the surface of the water. Swarms of gorgeously-hued fish swam and circled in and about the masses of scarlet and golden weed that clothed the columns from their tops downward, and swayed gently to and fro as they glided in and out.

A hawk-bill turtle, huge, black, and misshapen, slid out from beneath the dark ledge of the reef, and swam slowly across the pool, and then, between the masts, sank to the bottom.

"'Twas six years ago," said Nerida, as we raised our heads.

That night, as the Palestine sped noiselessly before the trade wind to the westward she told me, in the old Funafuti tongue, the tragedy of the Alida.

. . . . .

"The schooner," she said, "sailed very quickly, for on the fifteenth day out from Funafuti we saw the far-off peaks of Strong's Island. I was glad, for Kusaie is not many days' sail from Ponape -- and I hated to be on the ship. The man with the blue eyes filled me with fear when he looked at me; and he and the captain and mate were for ever talking amongst themselves in whispers.

"There were five native sailors on board -- two were countrymen of mine, and three were Tafitos.

"One night we were close to a little island called Mokil, and Taplin and I were awakened by a loud cry on deck; my two countrymen were calling on him to help them. He sprang on deck, pistol in hand, and, behold! the schooner was laid to the wind with the land close to, and the boat alongside, and the three white men were binding my country-men with ropes, because they would not get into the boat.

"'Help us, O friend!' they called to my husband in their own tongue; 'the white men say that if we go not ashore here at Mokil they will kill us. Help us -- for they mean evil to thee and Nerida. He with the yellow moustache wants her for his wife.'

"There were quick, fierce words, and then my husband struck Motley on the head with his pistol and felled him, and then pointed it at the mate and the captain, and made them untie the men, and called to the two Tafito sailors who were in the boat to let her tow astern till morning.

"His face was white with the rage that burned in him, and all that night he walked to and fro and let me sleep on the deck near him.

"'To-morrow,' he said, 'I will make this captain land us on Mokil;' it was for that he would not let the sailors come up from the boat.

"At dawn I slept soundly. Then I awoke with a cry of fear, for I heard a shot, and then a groan, and my husband fell across me, and the blood poured out of his mouth and ran down my arms and neck. I struggled to rise, and he tried to draw his pistol, but the man with yellow hair and blue eyes, who stood over him, stabbed him twice in the back. Then the captain and mate seized him by the arms and lifted him up. As his head fell back I saw there was blood streaming from a hole in his chest."

She ceased, and leant her cheek against the face of the little girl, who looked in childish wonder at the tears that streamed down her mother's face.

. . . . .

"They cast him over into the sea with life yet in him, and ere he sank, Motley (that devil with the blue eyes) stood with one foot on the rail and fired another shot, and laughed when he saw the bullet strike. Then he and the other two talked.

"'Let us finish these Pelew men, ere mischief come of it,' said Riedermann, the captain.

"But the others dissuaded him. There was time enough, they said, to kill them. And if they killed them now, there would be but three sailors to work the ship. And Motley looked at me and laughed, and said he, for one, would do no sailor's work yet awhile.

"Then they all trooped below, and took me with them -- me, with my husband's blood not yet dried on my hands and bosom. They made me get liquor for them to drink, and they drank and laughed, and Motley put his bloodied hand around my waist and kissed me, and the others laughed still more.

"In a little while Riedermann and the mate were so drunken that no words came from them, and they fell on the cabin floor. Then Motley, who could stand, but staggered as he walked, came and sat beside me and kissed me again, and said he had always loved me; but I pointed to the blood of my husband that stained my skin and clotted my hair together, and besought him to first let me wash it away.

"'Wash it there,' he said, and pointed to his cabin.

"'Nay,' said I, 'see my hair. Let me then go on deck, and I can pour water over my head.'

"But he held my hand tightly as we came up, and my heart died within me; for it was in my mind to spring overboard and follow my husband.

"He called to one of the Tafito men to bring water, but none came; for they, too, were drunken with liquor they had stolen from the hold, where there was plenty in red cases and white cases -- gin and brandy. "But my two countrymen were sober; one of them steered the ship, and the other stood beside him with an axe in his hand, for they feared the Tafito men, who are devils when they drink grog.

"'Get some water,' said Motley, to Juan -- he who held the axe; and as he brought it, he said, 'How is it, tattooed dog, that thou art so slow to move?' and he struck him in the teeth, and as he struck he fell.

"Ah! that was my time! Ere he could rise I sprang at him, and Juan raised the axe and struck off his right foot; and then Liro, the man who steered, handed me his knife. It was a sharp knife, and I stabbed him, even as he had stabbed my husband, till my arm was tired, and all my hate of him had died away in my heart.

. . . . .

"There was quick work then. My two countrymen went below into the cabin and took Motley's pistol from the table; . . . then I heard two shots.

"Guk! He was a fat, heavy man, that Riedermann, the captain; the three of us could scarce drag him up on deck and cast him over the side, with the other two.

"Then Juan and Liro talked, and said: 'Now for these Tafito men; they, too, must die.' They brought up rifles, and went to the forepart of the schooner, where the Tafito men lay in a drunken sleep, and shot them dead.

"In two more days we saw land -- the island we have left but now, and because that there were no people living there -- only empty houses could we see -- Juan and Liro sailed the schooner into the lagoon.

"We took such things on shore as we needed, and then Juan and Liro cut away the topmasts and towed the schooner to the deep pool, where they made holes in her, so that she sank, away out of the sight of men.

. . . . .

"Juan and Liro were kind to me, and when my child was born, five months after we landed, they cared for me tenderly, so that I soon became strong and well.

"Only two ships did we ever see, but they passed far-off like clouds upon the sea-rim; and we thought to live and die there by ourselves. Then there came a ship, bringing back the people who had once lived there. They killed Juan and Liro, but let me and the child live. The rest I have told you. . . . How is this captain named? . . . He is a handsome man, and I like him."

. . . . .

We landed Nerida at Yap, in the Western Carolines. A year afterwards, when I left the Palestine, I heard that Packenham had given up the sea, was trading in the Pelew Group, and was permanently married, and that his wife was the only survivor of the ill-fated Alida.

 
 
 

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