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A short story by Louis Becke

Addie Ransom: A Memory Of The Tokelaus

Title:     Addie Ransom: A Memory Of The Tokelaus
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

A hot, steamy mist rose from the gleaming, oily sea, and the little island lay sweltering and gasping under a sky of brass and a savagely blazing sun. Along the edges of the curving lines of yellow beach the drought-smitten plumes of the fast-withering coco-palms drooped straight, brown and motionless; and Wallis, the trader at Avamua village, as he paced to and fro upon the heated boards of his verandah, cursed the island and the people, and the deadly calm, and the brassy sky, and the firm of Tom de Wolf & Sons (whom he blamed for the weather), and the drought, and the sickness, and the overdue ship, and himself, and everything else; and he wished that Lita would go away for a month--her patience and calmness worried and irritated him. Then he might perhaps try getting drunk on Sundays like Ransom; to-day was Sunday, and another Sunday meant another hell of twelve hours' heat, and misery, and hope deferred.

'Curse that damned bell! There it goes again, though half of the people are dead, and the other half are dying like rotten sheep! Oh, for a ship, or rain, or a howling gale--anything but this!'

He dashed his pipe furiously upon the verandah, and then flung himself into a cane lounge, pressed his hands to his ears, and swore silently at the jarring clamour of the hated church bell.

Lita's brown hand touched him on the shoulder.

'Wassa th' matter, Tom, wis you?'

'Oh, go away, for God's sake, Lita, there's a good girl. Leave me alone. Go to church, and tell Ioane I'll give him a couple of dollars not to ring that damned, infernal bell again to-day. I'm going mad! I'll get drunk, I think, like Ransom. My God! just think of it, girl! Twelve months without a ship, and this hateful, God-forsaken island turning into a pest-house.'

'Wasa is pesta-house, Tom?'

'Place where they put people in to die--lazzaretto, charnel-house, morgue, living grave! Oh, go away, girl, go to the blarsted church if you want to, and leave me alone.'

Her slender fingers touched his hand timidly.

'I don' wan' go to church, Tom. I don' wan' leave you here to get mad an' lon'ly by yourse'f.'

'Very well, old woman, stay here with me. Perhaps a breeze may come by-and-by and then we can breathe. How many people died yesterday, Lita?'

''Bout nine, Tom--four men, tree woman, an' some child.'

'Poor devils! I wish I had some medicine for them. But I'm hanged if I know what it is--some sort of cholera brought here by that infernal American missionary brig, I believe. Hallo! there's Ioane beginning.'

* * * * *

The white-walled native church was not a stone's throw away, and through the wide, paneless windows and open doors the deep voice of Ioane, the Samoan native teacher, sounded clearly and solemnly in the still, heated morn. Wallis, with his wide straw hat covering his bronzed face, lay back in the lounge, and, at first, took no heed. Lita, sitting at his feet, rested her chin on one hand and listened intently.

'Turn ye all, men and women of this afflicted land of Nukutavau, to the Word of God, which is written in the Book of Isaiah, in the fortieth chapter and the sixth verse. It was to my mind that we should first sing to the praise of Jehovah; but, alas! we cannot sing to-day; for my cheeks are wetted with many tears, and my belly is bursting with sorrow when I see how few there are of us who are left. But yet can we pray together; and the whisper of affliction shall as surely reach the ear of God as the loud, glad song of praise. But first hear ye these words:--

'"The Voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? And the Voice answered. All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: Surely the people is grass."'

Wallis sat up and listened; for as the preacher ceased he heard the sound of many sobs; and presently a woman, old, gaunt and feeble, staggered out from the church and flung herself face downwards upon the burning sand.

'_A mate, a mate tatou_,' she moaned, 'e agi mai le manava Ieova.' ('We perish, we perish with the breath of Jehovah.')

She lay there unheeded; for now the preacher, with broken voice, was passionately imploring his congregation to cast themselves upon the mercy of God, and beseech Him to stay the deadly pestilence which had so sorely smitten the land.

'And spare Thou, O God Most High, Most Merciful, and Most Just, these many little children who yet live, for they are but very small, and have not yet sinned before Thee. Three of mine own hast thou touched with Thy hand, and taken to Thee, and my belly and the belly of my wife are empty, and yearn in the night for the voices we shall hear no more. And for those three whom Thou hast taken, spare Thou three of those who yet live. And shield, O God, with Thy care, the _papalagi_{*} Ranisome and his child, the girl Ati' (Addie), 'for she loveth Thy word; and turn Thou the heart of her father from the drinking of grog, so that he shall be no more as a hog that is _loia_.'{**} 'And shield, too, the _papalagi_ Walesi and the woman Lita--she who liveth with him in sin--for their hearts are ever good and their hands ever open to us of Nukutavau; and send, O most merciful and compassionate One, a ship, so that the two white men and the woman Lita, and the girl Ati, and we, Thy people, may not die of hunger and thirst and sickness, but live to praise Thy holy name.'

* Foreigner.

** A man or an animal is _loia_ when he or it has
eaten or drunk to such repletion as to lie down
and be overrun with ants--an expressive Samoan
synonym for excess.

A burst of weeping, and _Amene! Amene!_ came from his hearers, then silence; and Wallis, taking his hat from his face, bent his head.

Presently the scanty congregation came slowly forth. Some, as they passed the white man and Lita, tried to smile a greeting to them, though every brown face was wet with tears. Last of all came Ioane, the Samoan teacher, short, square-built, with deep sunken earnest eyes bent to the ground, his right arm supporting his wife, whose slender frame was shaken with the violence of her grief for those three of her heart whom 'He had taken.' Wallis, followed by Lita, stepped down from his verandah, and held out his hand. The teacher pressed it in silence, and, unable now to speak, walked slowly on. Lita, her dark, oval face still hot with anger, drew back and made no sign, though Eline, the teacher's wife, murmured as she passed,--'Nay, be not angry, Lita; for death is near to us all.'

* * * * *

As they returned to the house, Ransom, the old trader from Avatulalo, the next village to that in which Wallis lived, met them at the gate. He was a man of sixty or thereabout--grey, dirty, dishevelled and half drunk.

'I want you and Lita to come back with me,' he said slowly, holding to the palings of the fence, and moving his head from side to side; 'you must come... 'you must come, or'--with sudden frenzy--'by God, I'll put a firestick into your house; I will, by blazes, I will! Curse you, Tom Wallis, and your damned, Sydney-white-duck-suit-respectability, and your damned proud quarter-caste Portugee woman, who you ain't married to, as I was to mine--bad as she was. Put up your hands you--'

Wallis gripped him firmly but kindly by the wrists, and forced him into a seat.

'What's the matter with you, Ransom? Only drunk and fightable as usual? or are you being chased by pink snakes with tiger's heads again, eh? There, sit quiet, old man. Where is Addie?'

For a few moments the old man made no answer; then he rose, and placing his trembling hands on Wallis's chest said brokenly,--

'God help me, Tom! She's a-dyin'... an' I'm near drunk. She was took bad this mornin', an' has been callin' for the teacher an' Lita-- an' I'd as lief go to hell as to ask a damned Kanaka mission'ry to come an' talk Gospel an' Heaven to a child o' mine--not in my own house, anyway. It ain't right or proper. But she kep' on a-pesterin' me, an' at last I said I would come an' arst him... an' while I was waitin' outside the church I hears the damned feller a-prayin' and sayin' "_All flesh is grass, and the grass withereth_"'--his voice quivered and broke again--'an' onct I heard my old mother say them very words when she was a-dyin', more'n forty year ago, in the old country. An' Addie's dyin' fast, Tom; dyin', an' I can't say a prayer with her; I don't know none. I'm only a drunken old shellback, an' I ought to be struck dead for my bloody sins. She's all I has in the world to love; an' now, an' now--' He turned away and, covering his face with his coarse, sunburnt hands, sobbed like a child.

* * * * *

Half an hour later Wallis and Lita were in the room with the dying girl. Ransom, shambling behind them, crept in and knelt at the foot of the bed. Two native women, who were squatted on the matted floor went out softly, and Wallis bent over the girl and looked into her pallid, twitching face, over which the dread grey shadow was creeping fast. She put out her hand to the trader and Lita, and a faint smile moved her lips.

'You is good to come, Tom Wallis,' she said, in her childish voice, 'an' so is you, Lita. Wher' is my fath'? I don' see him. I was ask him to bring Ioane here to pray fo' me. I _can't_ pray myself.... I _have_ been try.... Wher' is you, fath'?'

Ransom crept round to her side, and laid his face upon her open hand.

'Ah, fath', you is come... poor fath'. I say, fath', _don_ you drink no more. You been promise me that, fath', so many time. _Don'_ you break yo' promise now, will you?'

The grizzled old sinner put his trembling lips to hers. 'Never no more, Addie--may God strike me dead if I lie!'

'Come away, old man,' said Wallis, softly, 'let Lita be with her. Neither you nor I should disturb her just now. See, she wants Lita. But her time is near, and you must keep close to her.'

They drew apart, and Lita knelt beside the bed.

* * * * *

'An' did he pray for fath', an' me, an' you, an' Tom, an' my mother who runned away? Tell me all 'bout it, Lita. I _did_ wan' him to come and tell me some things I wan' to know before I is dead. Tell me what he say.'

'He say dat vers', "De grass with', de flow' fade, but de word of de Lor' God endure fo' ev.'"'

'Was do it mean, Lita, dear?'

'I don' 'xactly know, Ati, dear. But Tom say he mean dat by-an'-by, if we is good an' don' lie an' steal, an' don' kill nobody, dat we all go to heav' when we is die.'

'Lita, dear, Ioane say one day dat de Bible say my fath' go to hell because he get drunk all de time.'

'Don' you b'lieve him, Ati; Ioane is only dam Kanaka mission'ry. Wassa the hell do _he_ know 'bout such thing? _You_ go to heav' sure 'nuff, and you' fath' come to you there by-an'-by. He never been steal or lie; he on'y get drunk. Don' you be 'fraid 'bout dat, Ati, dear. An' you will see yo' mother, too. Oh, yes, yo' will see yo' mother; an' yo' fath' will come there too, all nice, an' clean, an' sober, in new pyjamas all shinin' white; an' he will kiss yo' mother on her mouf, an' say, "I forgive you, Nellie Ransom, jes' as Jesu Christ has forgive me."'

The girl sighed heavily, and then lay with closed eyes, breathing softly. Suddenly she turned quickly on her side, and extended her arms, and her voice sounded strangely clear and distinct.

'Where is you, fath'? Quick, quick, come an' hol' me. It is dark.... Hol' me tight... clos' up, clos' up, fath', my fath'... it is so dark--so dark.'

* * * * *

The natives told Wallis next morning that 'Ranisome' had gone quite mad.

'How know ye he is mad?'

'_Tah!_ He hath taken every bottle of grog from two boxes and smashed them on the ground. And then we saw him kneel upon the sand, raise his hands, and weep. He is mad.'

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: Addie Ransom: A Memory Of The Tokelaus