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Hickson: A Half-caste Post by :tboyack Category :Short Stories Author :Louis Becke Date :April 2011 Read :4128

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Hickson: A Half-caste

"Mauki" Hickson and I were coming across from the big native town at Mulinu'u Point to Apia one afternoon when we met a dainty little white woman, garmented in spotless white. Hickson, touching his hat, walked on across the narrow bridge that crosses the creek by the French Mission, and waited for me on the other side.

This tiny lady in white was a lovable little creature. There was not a man in Samoa but felt proud and pleased if she stopped and spoke to him. And she could go anywhere on the beach, from respectable Matautu right down to riotous, dissolute Matafele, and make her purchases at the big store of Der Deutsche Handels Plantagen und Sud See Inseln Gesellschaft without even a drunken native daring to look at her. That was because every one, dissolute native and licentious white, knew she was a good woman. Perhaps, had she been married, and had she had a yellow, tallowy skin and the generally acidulated appearance peculiar to white women long resident in the South Seas, we wouldn't have thought so much of her, and felt mean and contemptible when she taxed us in her open, innocent fashion with doing those things that we ought not have done. But she had a sweet, merry little face, set about with dimples, and soft cheeks hued like the first flush of a ripening peach; and when she spoke to us she brought back memories of other faces like hers--far-away faces that most of us would have liked to have seen again.

*****

Just by the low stone wall, that in those days came close down to the creek, the little lady stood under the shade of some cocoanuts, and spoke to me.

"Who is that horrible, sulky-looking half-caste?" she said, jerking her sunshade towards my late companion.

"That is Hickson, Miss Milly," I said--a very decent, steady fellow, with a white man's heart.

"Decent! steady! and with a white man's heart!" and Miss Milly's pink-and-white cheeks reddened angrily. "How I hate that expression! No wonder all sorts of horrible things happen in these dreadful islands when white men will walk down the road with a cruel, remorseless wretch like Hickson--the man that murdered his sister."

"You should not say that, Miss Milly," I said. "Of course that is the common report, spread about by the captain of the German brig----. But that is because Hickson nearly killed him for calling him a nigger. And you must remember, Miss Milly, that I was there at the time. Hickson was our second mate. His sister was killed, but it is a cruel thing to accuse him of murdering her; he was very fond of her."

"Oh dear! I am so glad to hear some one say it isn't true," and the bright eyes filled. "They say, too, she was such a pretty little thing. How ever did she get to such a terrible place as Ponape? Come up and see uncle and me before you go away again. Good-bye now, I'm going to buy a water-bag at Goddeffroy's."

*****

I think that Hickson must have guessed that he had formed the subject of the conversation between the little lady and myself, for after we had walked on a bit he said, suddenly--

"I think I'll go aboard the _Menchikoff_ and ship; she wants some hands, and I would like to clear out of this. Except two or three that have known me for a long time, like yourself, every one looks crooked at me."

"I think you are right, Hickson, in going away. Samoa is a bad place for an idle man. But won't you come another trip with us The old man{*} thinks a lot of you, and there's always a second mate's berth for you with him."

* The "old man," i.e., the captain.

Hickson's eyes flashed fire. "No! I'd as lief go to hell as ship again with a man that once put me in irons, and disgraced me before a lot of Kanakas. I've got White Blood enough in me to make me remember that. Good-bye," and he shook hands with me; "I'll wait here till the _Menchikoff's_ boat comes ashore and go off and see Bannister."

Poor Hickson. He was proud of his White Blood, and the incident he alluded to was a bitter memory to him. Could he ever forget it? I never could, and thought of it as I was being pulled off on board.

*****

It was at Jakoits Harbour--in Ponape--that it happened. Hickson and I were going ashore in the long boat to buy a load of yams for our native crew, when he began to tell me something of his former life.

His had been a strange and chequered career, and in his wanderings as a trader and as a boatsteerer in a Hobart Town whaler, he had traversed every league of the wide Pacific. With his father and two sisters he had, till a few years or so before he joined us, been trading at Yap, in the Western Carolines. Here the wandering old white man had died. Of his two sisters, one, the eldest, had perished with her sailor husband by the capsizing of a schooner which he commanded. The youngest, then about nine years old, was taken care of by the captain of a whaler that touched at Yap, until he placed her in charge of the then newly-founded American Mission at Ponape, and in the same ship, Hickson went on his wanderings again, joining us at Tahiti. And I could see as he talked to me that he had a deep affection for her.

"What part of Ponape is she living on?" I asked.

"I don't know, I'm sure. Here, I suppose; and if you don't mind, while you're weighing the yams, I'll go up to the mission-house and inquire."

"Right you are, Hickson," I said, "but don't forget to get back early, it's a beastly risky pull out to the ship in the dark."

We went into a little bay, and found the natives waiting for us with the yams, and Hickson, after inquiring the way to the Mission, left me.

*****

Ponape in those days was a rough place. It was the rendezvous of the American whaling fleet, that came there for wood and water and "other supplies," before they sailed northward along the grim coasts of Japan and Tchantar Bay to the whale grounds of the Arctic Seas.

And sometimes there would be trouble over the "other supplies" among the savagely licentious crews of mixed men of all nations, and knives would flash, and the white sand of the beaches be stuck together in places with patches and clots of dull red. It was the whalers' paradise--a paradise of the loveliest tropical beauty, of palm-shaded beach and verdure-clad mountain imaginable; a paradise of wonderfully beautiful and utterly, hopelessly immoral native women; and, lastly, a paradise of cheap native grog, as potent and fiery as if Hell had been boiled down and concentrated into a small half-pint.

It was dark, and the yams had all been brought and stored in the boat before Hickson returned. By the flickering light of a native fire in a house close by I could see that something was the matter with him. His face was drawn, and his black eyes gleamed out like dully burning coals from the thick wavy hair that fell about his temples.

"I'm sorry I'm late," he said, and the moment he had spoken I knew by the dangerous huskiness of his voice that he had been drinking the native grog.

Staggering into the boat, he sat down beside me and took the tiller.

"Give way, _fanau seoli_ (children o hell)," he growled to our crew of Samoans and Rotumah boys, "let us get these yams aboard, and then I'm coming back to burn the ------ mission-house down."

Slowly the heavily-laden boat got way on her, and we slid away from the light of the native fire out into the inky blackness of night. Beyond a muttered curse at the crew, and keeping up that horrible grinding of the teeth common enough to men of violent passions when under great excitement, Hickson said nothing further till I asked--

"Hickson, what's the matter? Couldn't you find your sister?"

He sat up straight, and gripping my knee in his left hand till I winced, said, with an awful preliminary burst of blasphemy--

"By God, sir, she's gone to hell; I'll never see poor little Katia again. I'm not drunk, don't you think it. I did have a stiff pull of grog up in the village there, but I'm not drunk; but there's something running round and round in my head that's drivin' me mad."

"Where is she?" I asked.

"God knows. I went to the mission-house and asked for the white missionary. The ------ dog wasn't there. He and his wife are away in Honolulu, on a dollar-cadging trip. There was about three or four of them cursed native teachers in the house, and all I could get out of them was that Katia wasn't there now; went away a year ago. 'Where to?' I said to one fat pig, with a white shirt and no pants on him. 'Don't know,' says he, in the Ponape lingo; 'she's a bad girl now, and has left us holy ones of God and gone to the whaleships.'"

Coming from any other man but Hickson I could have laughed at this, so truly characteristic of the repellent, canting native missionary of Micronesia, but the quick, gasping breath of Hickson and his trembling hand showed me how he suffered.

"I grabbed him and choked him till he was near dead, and chucked him in a heap outside. Then I went all round to the other houses, but every one ran away from me. I got a swig of grog from a native house and came right back." Then he was silent, and fixed his eyes on the ship's lights seaward.

I could not offer him any sympathy, so said nothing. Lighting our pipes we gazed out ahead. Far away, nearest the reef, lay our brig, her riding light just discernible. A mile or two further away were three or four American whalers, whose black hulls we could just make out through the darkness. Within five hundred yards of us lay a dismantled and condemned brig, the _Kamehameha IV._ from whose stern ports came a flood of light and the sounds of women's voices.

We were just about abeam of her when Hickson suddenly exclaimed--

"Why, sir, the boat is sinking. Pull hard, boys, pull for the brig. The water's coming in wholesale over the gunwale. Hadn't you fellows enough sense to leave a place to bale from?" and he slewed the boat's head for the brig.

She had two boats astern. We were just in time to get alongside one and pitch about two tons of yams into her, or we would have sunk.

The noise we made was heard on the brig, and a head was put out of one of the ports, and a voice hailed us. This was the brig's owner and captain, W------.

"Come on board and have a cigar!" he called out.

Leaving the crew to bale out and re-ship the yams, we clambered on deck.

Now, this brig and her captain had a curious history. She was, two years before, as well-found a whaleship as ever sailed the Pacific, but by some extraordinary ill-luck she had never taken a fish during a cruise of seven months, although in the company of others that were doing well. The master, one of those fanatically religious New Englanders that by some strange irony of fate may be often met with commanding vilely licentious crews of whaleships, was a skilled and hitherto lucky man. On reaching Ponape the whole of his officers and crew deserted _en masse_ and went off in other ships. Utterly helpless, W------ was left by himself. There were, of course, plenty of men to be had in Ponape, but the ship's reputation for bad luck damned his hopes of getting a fresh crew.

Whether the man's brain was affected by his troubles I know not, but after living like a hermit for a year, alone on the brig, a sudden change took place in his character and conduct. Sculling ashore in one of his boats--she was a four-boat ship--he had an interview with Nanakin, the chief of the Jakoit's district, and returned on board with five or six young girls, to whom he gave permanent quarters on board, selling from time to time his sails, whaling gear, and trade to keep his harem in luxury. At the end of a year the brig was pretty well stripped of all of any value; and W------ went utterly, hopelessly mad.

*****

The brig's cabin was large and roomy. The table that had once nearly filled it had been taken away, and the floor covered with those peculiarly made Ponape mats which, by rolling up one-half of either end, forms a combined couch and pillow. As Hickson and I, following the crazy little captain, made our appearance, some four young girls, who were lolling about on the mats, started up, and looked at us with big, wondering eyes, ablaze with curiosity.

Both Hickson and myself--and he had roved throughout Polynesia from his boyhood--were struck by the extraordinary beauty of these four young creatures; so young and innocent in looks; in sin, as old as Ninon d'Enclos.

Placing one hand on the shoulder of the girl nearest to him, and fixing his big, blue, deep-set eyes on us, W------waved the other towards the girls, and said--

"Welcome, gentlemen, welcome. Behold these little devils, who in the guise of sunburnt angels are the solace of a man forgotten by his God, and the father of a family residing in Martha's Vineyard, United States of America."

Then he gave us each a cigar and told us to be seated while he got us a glass of New England rum.

*****

Hickson, with a contemptuous smile, sat with folded arms on a short, heavy stool. One of the girls, unshipping one of the two lights from the hook on which it hung, followed W------into a state-room to get the rum. Presently we heard them coming out, W------ carrying a wickerwork-covered five-gallon jar; but two girls came out instead of one. The stranger kept close to W------, one hand holding the sleeve of his shirt.

Stooping as he set the jar on the floor, I had a good view of the new-comer, and a deadly fear seized me. I knew at once that she was Hickson's sister! He was coarse and rough-looking, but yet a handsome man, and this girl's likeness to him was very striking. Just then Hickson, not even noticing her, rose and said he was going on deck to see if the boat was ready, when the strange quavering tones of W------ arrested him.

"Be seated, sir, for another minute. Nijilon, get some glasses. You see here, gentlemen, the fairest and choicest or all my devil-vestals, one that------"

Hickson looked at her, and with a terrified wail the girl clutched W------'s arm, and placed her face against his breast. With lips drawn back from his white teeth the half-caste sprang up, and his two clenched hands pawed the air. Then from his throat there came a sound like a laugh strangled into a groan.

Scarce knowing what I did I got in front of him, He dashed me aside as if I were a child, and seized the stool. And as he swung it round above his head the girl raised a face like the hue of death to his; then the blow fell, and she and W------ went down together.

******

Hickson rushed on deck and tried to spring overboard. I think he must have struck the main boom, for one of our crew who was on deck heard him fall. We got a light, and found him lying senseless. Two of the "vestals" held him up while I went below for some rum and water. W------ was lying where he had fallen, breathing heavily, but not seriously injured as far as I could see. But one look at the closed eyes of the girl told me she was past all help. The heavy stool had struck her on the temple.

Placing Hickson in the boat with two men to mind mm, I took the other two with me into the cabin of the brig. W------ was seated on the floor, held up by two of his harem, and muttering unintelligibly to himself. The other two were bending over the figure on the floor, and placing their hands on her bosom.

"Come away from here, L------," said Harry, one of our Rotumah boys, to me; "if the Ponape men come off, they will kill us all."

We could do nothing, so we got back into the boat, and with the still senseless body of Hickson lying at our feet, pulled out to the ship.

******

When he came to he was a madman, and for his own safety our captain put him in irons. We put to sea next day, our skipper, like a wise man, saying it would go hard with us if W------ died, and four Yankee whalers in port.

The day after we got away Hickson was set at liberty, and went about his duties as usual. At nightfall I went into his deck cabin. He was lying in his bunk, in the dark, smoking. He put out his hand, and drew me close up to him.

"Harry says she is dead?"

"Yes," I whispered.

"Poor little Katia; I never meant to hurt her But I am glad she is dead."

And he smoked his pipe in silence.


(The end)
Louis Becke's short story: Hickson: A Half-Caste

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