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A short story by Louis Becke

At The Ebbing Of The Tide

Title:     At The Ebbing Of The Tide
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

Black Tom's "hell" was one of the institutions of Samoa. And not an unpleasant hell to look at--a long, rambling, one-storeyed, white-painted wooden building, hidden on the beach side from ships entering Apia Harbour by a number of stately cocoanuts; and as you came upon it from the palm-shaded track that led from the brawling little Vaisigago towards the sweeping curve of Matautu Point, the blaze of scarlet hibiscus growing within the white-paled garden fence gave to this sailors' low drinking-den an inviting appearance of sweetest Arcadian simplicity.

That was nineteen years ago. If you walk along the Matautu path now and ask a native to show you where Tom's house stood, he will point to a smooth, grass-covered bank extending from the right-hand side of the path to the coarse, black sand of Matautu beach. And, although many of the present white residents of the Land of the Treaty Powers have heard or Black Tom, only a few grizzled old traders and storekeepers, relics of the bygone lively days, can talk to you about that grim deed of one quiet night in September.


Tamasi Uliuli (Black Thomas), as he was called by the natives, had come to Samoa in the fifties, and, after an eventful and varied experience in other portions of the group, had settled down to business in Matautu as a publican, baker and confectioner, butcher, seamen's crimp, and interpreter. You might go all over the Southern States, from St. Augustine to Galveston, and not meet ten such splendid specimens of negro physique and giant strength as this particular coloured gentleman. Tom had married a Samoan woman--Inusia--who had borne him three children, two daughters and one son. Of this latter I have naught to say here, save that the story of _his_ short life and tragic end is one common enough to those who have had any experience of a trader's life among the betel-chewing savages of fever-haunted New Britain. And the eldest daughter may also "stand out" of this brief tale.


Luisa was black. There was no doubt about that. But she was also comely; and her youthful, lissom figure as she walked with springy step to the bathing-place at the Vaisigago gave her a striking individuality among the lighter-coloured Samoan girls who accompanied her. Yet to all of us who lived in Matautu the greatest charms of this curly-haired half-caste were the rich, sweet voice and gay laugh that brightened up her dark-hued countenance as we passed her on the path and returned her cheerful "Talofa, _alii!_" with some merry jest. And, although none of us had any inclination to go into her father's pub. and let _him_ serve us with a bottle of Pilsener, Luisa's laughing face and curly head generally had attraction enough to secure, in the course of the day, a good many half-dollars for the 50lb. beef-keg which was Black Tom's treasury.


It gave us a shock one day to see Luisa emerging from the mission chapel with a white-haired old man by her side--married. The matter had been arranged very quietly. For about two months previously this ancient had been one of Black Tom's boarders. He was from New Zealand, and had come to Samoa to invest his money in trade, and being, perhaps, of a retiring and quiet disposition the sight of Mr. Thomas Tilton's innocent-looking dwelling attracted him thither. Anyhow, old Dermott remained there, and it was noticeable that, from the day of his arrival, Tamasi Uliuli exacted the most rigid performance of morning and evening devotions by his family, and that the nightly scenes of riot and howling drunkenness, that had theretofore characterised the "hotel," had unaccountably toned down. In fact, burly old Alvord, the consular interpreter, who had been accustomed to expostulate with Tom for the number of prostrate figures, redolent of bad rum, lying outside on the path in the early morning, showing by the scarcity of their attire that they had been "gone through" by thieving natives, expressed the opinion that Tom was either going mad, or "was getting consairned" about his sinful soul.


The knowledge of the fact that old Dermott had so much worldly wealth stowed away in his camphor-wood trunk, may have had (doubtless it did) the effect of causing this remarkable change in Tom's daily conduct. Dermott, in his way, was sourly religious; and, although not understanding a word of Samoan, was fond of attending the native church at Apia--always in the wake of Luisa, Toe-o-le-Sasa, and other young girls. His solemn, wrinkled visage, with deep-set eyes, ever steadily fixed upon the object of his affection, proved a source of much diversion to the native congregation, and poor Luisa was subjected to the usual Samoan jests about the _toe'ina_ and _ulu tula_ (old man and bald head), and would arrive from the church at her father's hell in a state of suppressed exasperation.

The happy marriage had been celebrated by Tom and his _clientele_ in a manner befitting the occasion and the supposed wealth of the bridegroom, Then none of us saw Luisa for a week at the bathing-place, and her non-appearance was discussed with interest at the nightly kava-drinking at half-caste Johnny Hall's public-house. Old Toi'foi, duenna of the kava-chewing girls, used to say solemnly that the old man had Luisa locked up in her room as she was _vale_ (obstinate), and sat on a chair outside and looked at her through a hole in the wall.


An hour after midnight on one of those silent tropic nights when naught is heard but the muffled boom of the ocean swell on the outer reef, a shot rang out through the sleeping village, and then a long wail as of some one in mortal agony or terror. Leger, the Canadian carpenter at Macfarlane's store, was, in company with Alvord the Swearer, and Pedro the Publican, and marry of us general sinners, up late at the kava-bowl when Leva, the prettiest girl on the Point, and the most notorious _nymphe du beach_ in Apia (there are no pavements in Samoa), dashed in amongst its with the announcement that "Luisa was dead." In another ten seconds we kava-drinkers, with unsteady legs but clear heads, were outside on our way to Black Tom's house, which was within pistol-shot.


An old man with a throat cut from ear to ear is not a cheerful sight at any time, and we turned quickly away from where he lay on the once spotless white bed, now an ensanguined horror, to look at poor Luisa, who lay on a mat on the floor, gasping out her brief young life. Her head was pillowed on her mother's bosom, and down her side the blood ran from the jagged bullet-hole. On a chair sat the herculean figure of Black Tom with his face in his hands, through which splashed heavy tears. Slowly he rocked himself to and fro in the manner of his race when strongly moved; and when he tried to speak there only struck upon our ears a horrible gasping noise that somehow made us turn again to the awful thing on the bed to see if it had aught to say upon the matter.


Luisa spoke but little. The kind-faced, quiet-voiced missionary doctor told her that which she already knew too well; and then we drew away while he spoke of other things, and we saw the look of dread and horror on the comely young face pass away and a faint smile part the lips that were already touched by the grim shadow of coming dissolution. Some of her village playmates and companions, with wet cheeks, bent their faces and touched her lips with theirs, and to each she sighed a low _To Fa_ of farewell, and then she looked toward the shaking bent figure in the chair and beckoned him over. With noiseless tread he came, and then, with her very soul looking at him from her great, death-stricken eyes, she murmured, "Fear not, my father, my mouth is covered by the hand of Death; farewell!" *****

The sound of the soft lapping of the falling tide came through the open window as Luisa spoke again to Toe-o-le-Sasa, the Maid of Apia--"E Toe, _e pae afea te tai_?" ("When is the tide out?") And the girl answered with a sob in her throat, "In quite a little while, O friend of my heart."

"_Ua lelei_. (It is well.) And as the waters run out so does my soul float away!" and she turned her face to her mother's bosom. And as we went softly out from the room and stood upon the path with the lofty palm-plumes rustling above us, we saw the first swirling wave of the incoming tide ripple round Matautu Point and plash on Hamilton's beach. And from within the silent house answered the wail of Death.

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: At The Ebbing Of The Tide