Vahitahi by Louis Becke
ONE day a trading vessel lay becalmed off Tatakoto, in the Paumotu Archipelago,
and the captain and supercargo, taking a couple of native sailors with them, went
ashore at dawn to catch some turtle. The turtle were plentiful and easily caught,
and after half a dozen had been put in the boat, the two white men strolled along
the white hard beach. The captain -- old, grizzled, and grim -- seemed to know the
place well, and led the way.
The island is very narrow, and as they left the beach and gained the shade of the
forest of coconuts that grew to the margin of high-water mark, they could see,
between the tall, stately palms, the placid waters of the lagoon, and a mile
or so across, the inner beach of the weather side of the island.
For a quarter of a mile or so the two men walked on till the widest part of the
island was reached. Here, under the shadow of some giant puka trees, the old
skipper stopped and sat down on a roughly hewn slab of coral, the remains of one
of those marae or heathen temples that are to be found almost anywhere in the
islands of Eastern Polynesia.
"I knew this place well, once," he said, as he pulled out his pipe. "I used to come
here when I was sailing one of Brander's vessels out of Tahiti. As we have done
now we did then -- came here for turtle. No natives have lived here for the past
forty years. Did you ever hear of Brantley?"
"Yes," answered the supercargo, "but he died long ago, did he not?"
"Aye, he died here, and his wife and sister too. They all lie here in this old marae."
And then he told the story of Brantley.
IT was six years since Brantley, with his companions in misery, had drifted ashore
at lonely Vahitahi in the Paumotu Group, and the kindly-hearted people had gazed
with pitying horror upon the dreadful beings that, muttering and gibbering
to each other, lay in the bottom of the boat, and pointed with long talon-like
fingers to their burnt and bloody thirst-tortured lips.
And now as he sits in the doorway of his thatched house, and gazes dreamily out
upon the long curve of creamy beach and wind-swayed line of palms that fringe
the leeward side of his island home, Brantley passes a brown hand slowly up and
down his sun-bronzed cheek, and thinks of the past.
He was so full of life -- of the very joy of living -- that time six years ago when he
sailed from Auckland on that fateful voyage in the Doris. It was his first voyage
as captain, and the ship was his own, and even now he remembers with a curious
time-dulled pang the last words of his only sister -- the Doris after whom he had
called his new ship -- as she had kissed him farewell -- "I am so glad, Fred, to hear
them call you 'Captain Brantley.'"
And the voyage -- the wild feverish desire to make a record passage to 'Frisco
and back; the earnest words of poor old white-headed Lutton, the mate, "not to
carry on so at night going through the Paumotu Group"; that awful midnight crash
when the Doris ran hopelessly into the wild boil of roaring surf on Tuanake Reef;
the white, despairing faces of five of his men, who, with curses in their
eyes upon his folly, were swept out of sight into the awful blackness of the night.
And then the days in the boat with the six survivors! Ah! the memory of that will
chill his blood to his dying day. Men have had to do that which he and the two who
came through alive with him had done.
How long they endured that black agony of suffering he knew not. By common
consent none of them ever spoke of it again.
Three months after they had drifted ashore, a passing sperm whaler, cruising
through the group, took away the two seamen, and then Brantley, after bidding
them a silent farewell, had, with bitter despair gnawing at his heart, turned his
face away from the ship, and walked. back into the palm-shaded village.
"I will never go back again," he had said to himself. And perhaps he was right; for
when the Doris went to pieces on Tuanake his hope and fortunes went with her,
and, save for that other Doris, there was no one in the world who cared for him.
He was not the man to face the world again with: "Why, he lost his first ship!"
whispered among his acquaintances.
And this is how Brantley -- young, handsome, and as smart a seaman (save for
that one fatal mistake) as ever trod a deck -- became Paranili the Papalagi,
and was living out his life among the people of solitary Vahitahi.
Ere a year had passed a trading captain bound to the Gambier Islands had given
him a small stock of trade goods, and the thought of Doris had been his salvation.
Only for her he would have sunk to the life of a mere idle, gin-drinking, and
dissolute beach-comber. As it was, his steady, straightforward life among the
people of the island was a big factor to his business success. And so every year
he sent money to Doris by some passing whaler or Tahitian trading schooner, but
twice only had he got letters from her; and each time she had said: "Let me come
to you, Fred. We are alone in the world, and may never meet again else.
Sometimes I awake in the night with a sudden fear. Let me come; my heart is
breaking with the loneliness of my life here, so far away from you."
But two years ago he had done that which would keep Doris from ever coming to
him, he thought. He had married a young native girl -- that is, taken her to wife in
the Paumotuan fashion -- and surely Doris, with her old-fashioned notions of right
and wrong, would grieve bitterly if she knew it.
Presently he rose, talking to himself as is the wont of those who have lived long
apart from all white associations, and sauntered up and down the shady
path at the side of his dwelling, thinking of Doris, and if he would ever see her
again. Then he entered the house.
Seated on the matted floor with her face turned from him was a young native girl
-- Luita, his wife. She was making a hat from the bleached strands of the
pandanus leaf, and as she worked she sang softly to herself in the semi-Tahitian
tongue of her people.
Brantley, lazily stretching himself out on a rough mat-covered couch, turned
towards her, and watched the slender, supple fingers -- covered, in Polynesian
fashion, with heavy gold rings -- as they deftly drew out the snow-white strands
of the pandanus. The long, glossy, black waves of hair that fell over her bare back
and bosom like a mantle of night hid her face from his view, and the man let his
glance rest in contented admiration upon the graceful curves of the youthful
figure; then he sighed softly, and again his eyes turned to the wide, sailless
expanse of the Pacific, that lay shimmering and sparkling before him under a
cloudless sky of blue, and he thought again of Doris.
Steadily the little hands worked in and out among the snowy strands, and now and
then, as she came to the tari, or refrain, of the old Paumotuan love-song, her
soft liquid tones would blend with the quavering treble of children that
"TerŸnavahori, teeth of pearl,
Knit the sandals for Talaloo's feet, /L>Sandals of afa thick and strong,
Bind them well with thy long black hair."
Suddenly the song ceased, and with a quick movement of her shoulders she threw
back the cloud of hair that fell around her arms and bosom, looked up at Brantley
and laughed, and, striking the mat on which she sat with her open palm, said --
"Haere mai, Paranili."
He rose from the couch and stooped beside her, with his hands resting on his
knees, and bending his brow in mock criticism, regarded her handiwork intently.
Springing to her feet, hat in hand, and placing her two hands on his now erect
shoulders, she looked into his face -- darker far than her own -- and said with a
"Behold, Paranili, thy pulou is finished, save for a band of black pu'ava which thou
shalt give me from the store."
"Mine?" said Brantley, in pretended ignorance. "Why labour so for me? Are there
not hats in plenty on Vahitahi?"
"True, O thankless one! but the women of the village say that thou lookest upon
me as a fool because I can neither make mats nor do many other things
such as becometh a wife. And for this did Merani, my cousin, teach me how to
make a wide hat of fala to shield thy face from the sun when thou art out upon
the pearling grounds. Ai-e-eh! my husband, but thy face and neck and hands are
as dark as those of the people of Makatea -- they who are for ever in their
canoes. . . . See, Paranili, bend thy head. Ai-e-eh! thou art a tall man, my
husband," and she trilled a happy, rippling laugh as she placed the hat on his head.
He placed one hand around the pliant waist and under the mantle of hair, and drew
her towards him, and then, moved by a sudden emotion, kissed her soft, red lips.
"Luita," he asked, "would it hurt thee if I were to go away?"
The girl drew away from him, and, for the first time in two years Brantley saw an
angry flush tinge her cheek a dusky red.
"Ah!" -- the contemptuous ring in her voice made the man's eyes drop -- "thou
art like all White Men -- was there ever one who was faithful? What other woman
is it that thou desirest? Is it Nia of Ahunui -- she who, when thy boat lay anchored
in the lagoon, swam off at night and asked thee for thy love -- the shameless
The angry light in the black eyes shone fiercely, and the dull red on her
cheeks had changed to the livid paleness of passion.
Brantley, holding the rim of the hat over his mouth, laughed secretly, pleased at
her first outburst of jealousy. Then his natural manliness asserted itself.
"Come here," he said.
Somewhat sullenly the girl obeyed and edged up beside him with face bent down. He
put his hand upon hers, and for a few seconds looked at the delicate tracery of
tattooing that, on the back, ran in thin blue lines from the finger tips to the
"What a d----d pity!" he muttered to himself; "this infernal tattooing would give
the poor devil away anywhere in civilization. Her skin is not as dark as that pretty
creole I was so sweet on in Galveston ten years ago . . . Well, she's good enough
for a broken man like me -- but I can't take her away -- that's certain."
A heavy tear splashed on his hand, and then he pulled her to him, almost savagely.
"See, Luita. I did but ask to try thee. Have no fear. Thy land is mine for ever."
The girl looked up, and in an instant her face, wet with tears, was laid against his
breast. Still caressing the dark head that lay upon his chest, Brantley stooped and
whispered something. The little tattooed hand released its clasp of his arm and
struck him a playful blow.
"And would that bind thee more to me, and to the ways of these our people
of Vahitahi," she asked, with still buried face.
"Aye," answered the ex-captain slowly, "for I have none but thee in the world to
She turned her face up. "Is there none -- not even one woman in far-off
Beretania, whose face comes to thee in the darkness."
Brantley shook his head sadly. Of course there was Doris, he thought, but he had
never spoken of her. Sometimes when the longing to see her again would come
upon him, he would have talked of her to his native wife, but he was by nature an
uncommunicative man, and the thought of how Doris must feel her loneliness
touched him with remorse and made him silent.
Another year passed, and matters had gone well with Brantley. Ten months before
he had dropped on one of the best patches of shell in the Paumotus, and to-day,
as he sits writing and smoking in the big room of his house, he looks contentedly
out through the open door to a little white painted schooner that lay at anchor on
the calm waters of the lagoon. He had just come back from Tahiti with her, and
the two thousand dollars he had paid for the vessel was an easy matter for a man
who was now making a thousand dollars a month.
"What a stroke of luck!" he writes to Doris. "Had I gone back to Sydney,
where would I be now? -- a mate, I suppose, on some deep-sea ship, earning £12 or
£14 a month. Another year or two like this, and I can go back a made man. Some
day, my dear, I may; but I will come back here again. The ways of the people have
become my ways."
He laid down his pen and came to the door, and stood thinking awhile and listening
to the gentle rustle of the palms as they swayed their lofty plumes to the breezy
"Yes," he thought, "I would like to go and see Doris, but I can't take Luita, and so
it cannot be. How that girl suspects me even now. When I went to Tahiti to buy the
schooner, I believe she thought she would never see me again.... What a fool I am!
Doris is all right, I suppose, although it is a year since I had a letter . . . and I --
could any man want more. I don't believe there's a soul on the island but thinks as
much of me as Luita herself does; and, by G--d! she's a pearl -- even though she
is only a native girl. No, I'll stay here; 'Kapeni Paranili' will always be a big man in
the Paumotus, but Fred Brantley would be nobody in Sydney -- only a common
merchant skipper who had made money in the islands. . . . And perhaps Doris is
So he thought and talked to himself, listening the while to the soft
symphony of the swaying palm-tops and the subdued murmur of the surf as the
rollers crashed on the distant line of reef away to leeward. Of late these fleeting
visions of the outside world -- that quick, busy world, whose memories, save for
those of Doris, were all but dead to him -- had become more frequent; but the
calm, placid happiness of his existence, and that strange, fatal glamour that for
ever enwraps the minds of those who wander in the islands of the sunlit sea -- as
the old Spanish navigators called Polynesia -- had woven its spell too strongly over
his nature to be broken. And now, as the murmur of women's voices caused him to
turn his head to the shady end of the verandah, the dark, dreamy eyes of Luita,
who with her women attendants sat there playing with her child, looked out at him
from beneath their long lashes, and told him his captivity was complete.
A week afterwards the people of Vahitahi were clustered on the beach putting
supplies of native food in the schooner's boat. That night he was to sail again for
the pearling grounds at Matahiva lagoon, and would be away three months.
One by one the people bade him adieu, and then stood apart while he said farewell
"E mahina tolu, little one," he said, "why such a gloomy face?"
The girl shook her head, and her mouth twitched. "But the miti, Paranili -- the
miti of my mother. She is wise in the things that are hidden; for she is one of
those who believe in the old gods of Vahitahi. . . . And there are many here of the
new lotu who yet believe in the old gods. And, see, she has dreamed of this
unknown evil to thee twice; and twice have the voices of those who are silent in
the marae called to me in the night, and said: 'He must not go; he must not go.'"
Knowing well how the old superstitious taint ran riot in the imaginative native mind,
Brantley did not attempt to reason, but sought to gently disengage her hands
from his arm.
She dropped on the sand at his feet and clasped his knees, and a long, wailing note
of grief rang out -
"Aue! aue! my husband! if it so be that thou dost not heed the voices that call in
the night, then, out of thy love for me and our child, let me come also. Then, if evil
befall thee, let us perish together."
Brantley raised his hand and pointed to the bowed and weeping figure. Some
women came and lifted her up. Then taking the tender face between his
rough hands, he bent his head to hers, sprang into the boat, and was gone.
WITH ten tons of shell snugly stowed in her hold, the little Tamariki was heading
back for Vahitahi after barely two months' absence. Brantley, as he leant over the
rail and watched the swirl and eddy of the creamy phosphorescence that hissed
and bubbled under the vessel's stern, felt well satisfied.
It was the hour of dawn, and the native at the tiller sang, as the stars began to
pale before the red flush that tinged the sky to windward, a low chant of farewell
to Fetuaho, the star of the morning, and then he called to Brantley, who to all his
crew was always "Paranili," and never "Kapeni," and pointed with his naked,
tattooed arm away to leeward, where the low outlines of an island began to show.
"Look, Paranili, that is Tatakoto, the place I have told thee of, where the turtle
makes the white beach to look black. Would it not be well for us to take some
home to Vahitahi?"
"Thou glutton!" said Brantley, good-humouredly, "dost thou think I am like to lose
a day so that thou and thy friends may fill thy stomachs with turtle meat?"
Rua Manu laughed, and showed his white, even teeth. "Nay, Paranili, not for
that alone; but it is a great place, that Tatakoto, and thou hast never landed there
to look, and Luita hath said that some day she would ask thee to take her there;
for, though she was born at Vahitahi, her blood is that of the people of Tatakoto,
who have long since lain silent in the maraes."
Brantley had often heard her speak of it, this solitary spot in the wide Pacific, and
now, as he looked at the pretty, verdure-clad island against the weather shore of
which the thundering rollers burst with a muffled roar, he was surprised at its
length and extent, and decided to pay it a visit some day.
"Not now, Rua," he said to the steersman, "but it shall be soon. Are there many
"Many? May I perish, but the trees are as the sand of the sea, and the nuts lie
thick upon the ground. Ai-e-eh! and the robber crabs are in thousands, and fat;
and the sea-birds' eggs!"
"Glutton again! Be content. In a little while we and as many of the people of
Vahitahi as the schooner will carry will go there and stay for the turtle season."
Three days afterwards the schooner was within fifty miles of his island home,
when Brantley was aroused at daylight from his watch below by the cry of
"Te pahi!" (a ship!) and hastening on deck he saw a large vessel bearing down
upon them. In half an hour she was close to, and Brantley recognised her as a brig
from Tahiti, that occasionally made a trading voyage to the Paumotus, and whose
skipper was a personal friend. Suddenly she hove-to and lowered a boat, which
came alongside the schooner, and the white man that steered jumped on deck and
held out his hand.
"How are you, Brantley?" and then his eye went quickly over the crew of the
schooner, then glanced through the open skylight into the little cabin, and a
hopeful, expectant look in his face died away.
"Very well, thank you, Latham. But what is wrong? -- you look worried."
"Come on board," said the captain of the brig, quietly, "and I'll tell you."
As Brantley took his seat beside him, Latham said: "I have bad news for you,
Brantley. Your sister is on board the brig, and I fear she will not live long. She
came down to Tahiti in the Marama from Auckland, and offered me a good round
sum to bring her to you."
"Has she been ill long, Latham?"
Latham looked at him curiously. "Didn't you know, Brantley? She's in a rapid
For a moment neither men spoke; then Latham gave a short cough.
"I feel it almost as badly as you, Brantley -- but I've got a bit more bad
news -- "
"Go on, Latham -- it can't matter much. My poor sister is everything to me."
"Just so. That's what I told Miss Brantley. Well, it's this -- your wife and child are
missing----" Latham glanced at him and saw that his hand trembled and then
grasped the gunwale of the boat.
"We got into Vahitahi lagoon about ten days ago, and I took Miss Brantley ashore.
What happened I don't exactly know, but the next night one of your whale-boats
was gone, and Luita and the child were missing. Your sister was in a terrible state
of mind, and offered me a thousand dollars to put to sea. Brantley, old man, I
wouldn't take a dollar from her -- God bless her -- but I did put to sea, and I've
searched nigh on twenty islands, and scores of reefs and sandbanks----"
"Thank you, Latham," said Brantley quietly; "when we get on board you can give
me further particulars of the islands you've searched."
"You can have my marked chart; I've got a spare one. Brace up, old man! you'll see
your sister in a minute. She is terribly cut up over poor Luita -- more so than I
knew you would be. But she was a grand little woman, Brantley, although she was
only a native."
"Yes," he answered, in the same slow, dazed manner, "she was a good little
girl to me, although she----" The words stuck in his throat.
Latham showed him into the brig's cabin, and then a door opened, and Doris threw
herself weeping into his arms.
"Oh, Doris," he whispered, "why did you not tell me you were ill? I would have come
to you long ago. I feel a brute----"
She placed her hand on his lips. "Never mind about me, Fred. Has Captain Latham
told you about----"
"Yes," he replied; and then suddenly: " Doris, I am going to look for her; I think I
know the place to which she has gone. It is not far from here. Doris, will you go on
back to Vahitahi with Latham and wait for me?"
"Fred," she whispered, "let me come with you. It will not be long, dear, before I am
gone, and it was hard to die away from you -- that is why I came; and perhaps we
may find her."
He kissed her silently, and then in five minutes more they had said farewell to
Latham, and were on their way to the schooner.
The crew soon knew from him what had happened, and Rua Manu, with his big eyes
filled with a wondering pity as he looked at the frail body and white face of Doris
lying on the skylight, wore the schooner's head round to the south-west at a sign
"Aye, Paranili," he said, in his deep, guttural tones, "it is to Tatakoto she
hath gone -- 'tis her mother's land."
That night, as she lay on the skylight with her hand in his, Doris told him all she
"They were all kind to me when I went ashore to your house, Fred, but Luita looked
so fiercely at me. . . . Her eyes frightened me -- they had a look of death in them.
"In the morning your little child was taken ill with what they call tataru, and I
wanted to give it medicine. Luita pushed my hand away and hugged the child to her
bosom; and then the other women came and made signs for me to go away. And
that night she and the child were missing, and one of your boats was gone."
"Poor Luita," said Brantley, stroking Doris's pale cheek, "she did not know you
were my sister. I never told her, Doris."
"She is a very beautiful woman, Fred. They told me at Tahiti that she was called
the pearl of Vahitahi; and oh! my dear, if we can but find her, I will make her love
me for your sake."
Late in the afternoon of the second day, just as the trade wind began to lose its
strength, the schooner was running along the weather-side of Tatakoto, and Rua
Manu, from the mast-head, called out that he saw the boat lying on the beach
inside the lagoon, with her sail set; and, as landing was not practicable on
the weather-side, the schooner ran round to the lee.
"We will soon know, Doris. It always rains in these islands at this time of the year,
so she would not suffer as I once did; but the sail of the boat is still set, and that
makes me think she has never left it. Wait till I come back again, Doris; you cannot
And Doris,throwing her weak arms round his neck, kissed him with a sob, and lay
back again to wait.
With Rua Manu and two others of his faithful native crew, Brantley walked quickly
across the island to the lagoon to where the boat lay. Luita was not there, and the
dark eyes of his sailors met his in a responsive glow of hope -- she had not died in
They turned back into the silent aisles of coconut palms, and then Rua Manu loudly
called her name.
"Listen," he said.
A voice -- a weak, trembling voice -- was singing the song of Talaloo.
"TerŸnavahori, bending low,
Bindeth the sandals on Talaloo's feet;
'Hasten, O hasten, lover true,
O'er the coral, cruel and sharp,
Over the coral, and sand, and rock,
Snare thee a turtle for our marriage feast;
Ia akoe! brave lover mine.'"
"In the old marae, Paranili," said Rua Manu, pointing to the remains of a
ruined temple. Motioning to the seamen to remain outside, Brantley entered the
crumbling walls of the old heathen marae. At the far end was a little screen of
coconut boughs. He stooped down and went in.
A few minutes passed, and then his hand was thrust out between the branches as
a sign for them to follow.
One by one they came and sat beside Brantley, who held the wasted figure of the
wanderer in his arms. The sound of his voice had brought back her wavering
reason, and she knew them all now. She knew, too, that her brief young life was
ebbing fast; for, as each of the brown men pressed their lips to her hand, tears
coursed down their cheeks.
"See, men of Vahitahi, my Englishman hath come to me, a fool that fled from his
house . . . because I thought that he lied to me. Teloma was it who first mocked,
and said: ''Tis his wife from Beretania who hath come to seek him;' and then other
girls laughed and mocked also, and said: 'Ah-he! Luita, this fair-faced girl who
sayeth she is thy husband's sister, Ah-he!' . . . and their words and looks stung
me. . . . So at night I took my child and swam to the boat. . . . My child, see, it is
here," and she touched a little mound in the soil beside her.
There was a low murmur of sympathy, and then the brown men went
outside and covered their faces with their hands, after the manner of their race
when death is near, and waited in silence.
Night had fallen on the lonely island, and the far-off muffled boom of the breakers
as they dashed on the black ledges of the weather reef would now and then be
borne into the darkness of the little hut.
"Put thy face to mine, Paranili," she whispered; "I grow cold now."
As the bearded face of the man bent over her, one thin, weak arm rose waveringly
in the air, and then fell softly round his neck, and Brantley, with his hand upon her
bosom, felt that her heart had ceased to beat.
The next day he sailed the schooner into the lagoon, and Doris pressed her lips on
the dead forehead of the native girl ere she was laid to rest. Something that Doris
had said to him as they walked away from her grave filled Brantley's heart with a
deadly fear, and as he took her in his arms his voice shook.
"Don't say that, Doris. It cannot be so soon as that. I was never a good man; but
surely God will spare you to me a little longer."
But it came very soon -- on the morning of the day that he intended sailing out of
the lagoon again, Doris died in his arms on board the schooner, and
Brantley laid her to rest under the shade of a giant puka-tree that overshadowed
the stones of the old marae.
That night he called Rua Manu into the cabin and asked him if he could beat his way
back to Vahitahi in the schooner.
"'Tis an easy matter, Paranili. So that the sky be clear and I can see the stars,
then shall I find Vahitahi in three days."
"Good. Then to-morrow take the schooner there, and tell such of the people as
desire to be with me to come here, and bring with them all things that are in my
house. It is my mind to live here at Tatakoto."
As the schooner slipped through the narrow passage, he stood on the low, sandy
point, and waved his hand in farewell.
A week later the little vessel dropped her anchor in the lagoon again, and Rua Manu
and his crew came ashore to seek him.
They found him lying under the shade of the puka-tree with his revolver in his hand
and a bullet-hole in his temple.