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Title: Susāni (1901)
Author: Louis Becke

From "The Tapu Of Banderah and Other Stories"




A few weeks ago I was reading a charmingly written book by a lady (the
wife of a distinguished savant) who had spent three months on Funafuti,
one of the lagoon islands of the Ellice Group. Now the place and the
brown people of whom she wrote were once very familiar to me, and her
warm and generous sympathy for a dying race stirred me greatly, and when
I came across the name "Funāfala," old, forgotten memories awoke once
more, and I heard the sough of the trade wind through the palms and the
lapping of the lagoon waters upon the lonely beaches of Funāfala, as
Senior, the mate of the _Venus_, and myself watched the last sleep of
Susāni.

Funāfala is one of the many islands which encircle Funafuti lagoon with
a belt of living green, and to Funāfala--"the island of the pandanus
palm"--Senior and I had come with a party of natives from the village on
the main island to spend a week's idleness. Fifty years ago, long before
the first missionary ship sailed into the lagoon, five or six hundred
people dwelt on Funāfala in peace and plenty--now it holds but their
bones, for they were doomed to fade and vanish before the breath of the
white man and his civilisation and "benefits," which to the brown people
mean death, and as the years went by, the remnant of the people
on Funāfala and the other islets betook themselves to the main
island--after which the lagoon is named--for there the whale-ships
and trading schooners came to anchor, and there they live to this day,
smitten with disease and fated to disappear altogether within another
thirty years, and be no more known to man except in the dry pages of a
book written by some learned ethnologist.

But twice every year the people of Funafuti betake themselves to
Funāfala to gather the cocoa-nuts, which in the silent groves ripen and
fall and lie undisturbed from month to month; then for a week or ten
days, as the men husk the nuts, the women and children fish in the
daytime among the pools and runnels of the inner reef, and at night with
flaring torches of palm-leaf they stand amid the sweeping surf on
the outer side of the narrow islet, and with net and spear fill their
baskets with blue and yellow crayfish. Then when all the work is done,
the canoes are filled with the husked cocoanuts, and with laughter and
song--for they are yet a merry-hearted though vanishing people--they
return to the village, and for another six months Funāfala is left to
the ceaseless call of the restless sea upon the outer reef, and the
hoarse cry of the soaring frigate birds.

One afternoon Senior and myself, accompanied by a young,
powerfully-built native named Suka, were returning to the temporary
village on Funāfala--a collection of rude huts thatched with palm
leaves--from a fishing excursion on the outer reef, when we were
overtaken by a series of sudden squalls and downpours of rain. We were
then walking along the weather shore of the island, which was strewn
with loose slabs of coral stone, pure white in colour and giving forth a
clear, resonant sound to the slightest disturbing movement On our right
hand was a scrub of _puka_ trees, which afforded no shelter from the
torrential rain; on our left the ocean, whose huge, leaping billows
crashed and thundered upon the black, shelving reef, and sent swirling
waves of whitened foam up to our feet.

For some minutes we continued to force our way against the storm, when
Suka, who was leading, called out to us that a little distance on along
the beach there was a cluster of _pąpą_ (coral rocks), in the recesses
of which we could obtain shelter. Even as he spoke the rain ceased for
a space, and we saw, some hundreds of yards before us, the spot of which
he had spoken--a number of jagged, tumbled-together coral boulders which
some violent convulsion of the sea had torn away from the barrier reef
and hurled upon the shore, where, in the course of years, kindly Nature
had sent out a tender hand and covered them with a thick growth of a
creeper peculiar to the low-lying atolls of the mid-Pacific, and hidden
their rugged outlines under a mantle of vivid green.

As we drew near, the bright, tropic sun shone out for a while, and the
furious wind died away, seeming to gather fresh strength for another
sweeping onslaught from the darkened weather horizon.

"Quick," said Suka, pointing to the rocks, "'tis bad to be smitten with
such rain as this. Let us rest in the _pąpą_ till the storm be over."

Following our all but naked guide, who sprang from stone to stone with
the surefootedness of a mountain goat, we soon reached the cluster of
rocks, the bases of which were embedded in the now hard and stiffened
sand, and almost at the same moment another heavy rain squall swept down
and blurred sea and sky and land alike.

Bidding us to follow, Suka began to clamber up the side of the highest
of the boulders, on the seaward face of which, he said, was a small
cave, used in the olden days as a sleeping place by fishermen and
sea-bird catchers. Suddenly, when half-way up, he stopped and turned to
us, and with a smile on his face, held up his hand and bade us listen.
Some one was singing.

"It is Susani," he whispered, "she did not sleep in the village last
night. She comes to this place sometimes to sing to the sea. Come, she
is not afraid of white men."

Grasping the thick masses of green vine called _At At_ which hung from
the summit of the rock, we at last reached the foot of the cave, and
looking up we saw seated at the entrance a young native girl of about
twelve years of age. Even though we were so near to her she seemed
utterly unconscious of our presence, and still sang in a low, soft voice
some island chant, the words of which were strange to both my companion
and myself although we were well acquainted with nearly all the
_Tokelauan_ dialects.

Very quietly we stood awaiting till she turned her face towards us,
but her eyes were bent seaward upon the driving sheets of rain, and the
tumbling surf which thrashed upon the shore.

"Wait," said Suka in a low voice; "she will see us soon. 'Tis best not
to disturb her. She is afflicted of God and seeth many things."

Her song ceased, and then Suka, stepping forward, touched her gently
upon the arm. She looked up and smiled into his face, and then she let
her full, dark eyes rest upon the strangers who stood behind, then again
she turned to Suka in mute, inquiring wonder.

He bent down and placed his cheek against hers, "Be not afraid, Susāni;
they be good friends. And see, little one, sit thee further back within
the cave, for the driving rain beats in here at the mouth and thy feet
are wet and cold."

She rose without a word and stood whilst the kindly-hearted native
unrolled an old mat which lay at the end of the cave and spread it out
in the centre.

"Come, Susāni, dear one," he said gravely, and his usually harsh and
guttural voice sounded soft and tender. "Come, sit thee here, and then
in a little while shall I get wood and make a fire so that we may eat.
Hast eaten to-day, little one?"

She shook her head; a faint smile parted her lips, and then her strange,
mournful eyes for a moment again sought ours as she seated herself on
the mat Suka beckoned us to approach and sit near her, himself sitting a
little apart and to one side.

"Susāni," he said, bending forward and speaking slowly and carefully,
"_fealofani tau lima i taka soa_" ("give your hand to my friends ").

The girl held out her left hand, and Senior and I each took it in turn
gently within our own, and uttered the native greeting of "_Fakaalofa_."

"She can talk," said Suka, "but not much. Sometimes for many days no
word will come from her lips. It is then she leaveth the village and
walks about in the forest or along the beaches when others sleep. But
no harm can come to her, for she is _tausi mau te Atua_.{*} And be not
vexed in that she gave thee her left hand, for, see----"

     * In God's special keeping.

He touched the girl's right arm, and we now saw that it hung limp and
helpless upon her smooth, bared thigh.

"Was she born thus?" asked Senior, as he placed his strong, rough hand
upon her head and stroked her thick, wavy hair, which fell like a mantle
over her shoulders and back.

"Nay, she was born a strong child, and her mother and father were
without blemish, and good to look upon--the man was as thick as me" (he
touched his own brawny chest), "but as she grew and began to talk, the
bone in her right arm began to perish. And then the hand of God fell
upon her mother and father, and they died. But let me go get wood and
broil some fish, for she hath not eaten." Then he bent forward and
said--

"Dost fear to stay here, Susāni, with the white men?"

She looked at us in turn, and then said slowly--

"Nay, I have no fear, Suka."

"Poor little beggar!" said Senior pityingly.

Ten minutes later Suka had returned with an armful of dry wood and some
young drinking cocoanuts. Fish we had in plenty, and in our bags were
some biscuits, brought from the schooner. As Senior and I tended the
fire, Suka wrapped four silvery sea mullet in leaves, and then when it
had burnt down to a heap of glowing coals he laid them in the centre and
watched them carefully, speaking every now and then to the child, who
seemed scarcely to heed, as she gazed at Senior's long, yellow beard,
and his bright, blue eyes set in his honest, sun-tanned face. Then, when
the fish were cooked, Suka turned them out of their coverings and placed
them on broad, freshly plucked _puka_ leaves, and Senior brought the
hard ship biscuits, and, putting one beside a fish, brought it to the
child and bade her eat.

She put out her left hand timidly, and took it from him, her strange
eyes still fixed wonderingly upon his face. Then she looked at Suka, and
Suka, with an apologetic cough, placed one hand over his eyes and bent
his head--for he was a deacon, and to eat food without giving thanks
would be a terrible thing to do, at least in the presence of white men,
who, of course, never neglected to do so.

The child, hungry as she must have been, ate her food with a dainty
grace, though she had but one hand to use, and our little attentions to
her every now and then seemed at first to increase her natural shyness
and timidity. But when the rude meal was finished, and my companion and
myself filled our pipes and sat in the front of the cave, she came with
Suka and nestled up against his burly figure as he rolled a cigarette of
strong, black tobacco in dried banana leaf. The rain had ceased, but the
fronds of the coco-palms along the lonely shore swayed and beat together
with the wind, which still blew strongly, though the sun was now shining
brightly upon the white horses of the heaving sea.

For nearly half an hour we sat thus, watching the roll and curl of
the tumbling seas upon the reef and the swift flight of a flock of
savage-eyed frigate birds which swept to and fro, now high in air,
now low down, with wing touching wave, in search of their prey, and
listening to the song of the wind among the trees. Then Suka, without
speaking, smiled, and pointed to the girl. She had pillowed her head
upon his naked bosom and closed her long-lashed eyes in slumber.

"She will sleep long," he said. "Will it vex thee if I stay here with
her till she awakens? See, the sky is clear and the rain hath ceased,
and ye need but walk along the beach till----"

"We will wait, Suka," I answered; "we will wait till she awakens, and
then return to the village together. How comes it that one so young and
tender is left to wander about alone?"

Suka pressed his lips to the forehead of the sleeping girl. "No harm can
come to her. God hath afflicted, but yet doth He protect her. And she
walketh with Him and His Son Christ, else had she perished long ago, for
sometimes she will leave us and wander for many days in the forest or
along the shore, eating but little and drinking nothing, for she cannot
open a cocoanut with her one hand, and there are no streams of fresh,
sweet water here as there be in the fair land of Samoa. And yet God is
with her always, always, and she feeleth hunger and thirst but little."

Senior placed his hand on mine and gripped it so firmly that I looked
at him with astonishment He was a cold, self-contained man, making no
friends, never talking about himself, doing his duty as mate of the
_Venus_ as a seaman should do it, and never giving any one--even myself,
with whom he was more open than any other man--any encouragement to ask
him why he, a highly educated and intelligent man, had left civilisation
to waste his years as a wanderer in the South Seas. Still grasping my
hand, he turned to me and spoke with quivering lips--

"' She walketh with God! 'Did you hear that? Did you look into her eyes
and not see in them what fools would call insanity, and what I _know_
is a knowledge of God above and Christ and the world beyond. 'God has
afflicted her,' so this simple-minded native, whom many men in their
unthinking moments would call a canting, naked kanaka, says; but God has
_not_ afflicted her. He has blessed her, for in her eyes there is that
which tells me better than all the deadly-dull sermons of the highly
cultured and fashionable cleric, who patters about the Higher Life, or
the ranting Salvationist who bawls in the streets of Melbourne or Sydney
about the Blood of the Lamb, that there _is_ peace beyond for all....
'God has afflicted this poor child!' Would that He might so afflict
me physically as He has afflicted her--if He but gave me that inner
knowledge of Himself which so shines out and is glorified in her face."

His voice, rising in his excitement, nearly awakened her; so Suka, with
outstretched hand, enjoined silence.

"She sleeps, dear friends."

A year had come and gone, and the _Venus_ again lay at anchor in the
broad lagoon of Funafuti. Suka had come aboard whilst the schooner was
beating up to the anchorage, and said that there had been much sickness
on the island, that many people had died, and that Susāni with other
children was _tali mate_ (nearly dead). Could we give them some
medicine? for it was a strong sickness this, and even the "thick"{*} man
or woman withered and died from it. Soon they would all be dead.

     * I.e., strong, stout.

Alas! we could not help them much, for our medicine chest was long since
depleted of the only drug that would have been of service. At every
island in the group from Nanomea southwards we had found many of the
people suffering and dying from a malignant type of fever introduced
by an Hawaiian labour vessel. Then an additional misfortune followed--a
heavy gale, almost of hurricane force, had set in from the westward
and destroyed countless thousands of cocoanut trees, so that with the
exception of fish, food was very scarce.

We sent Suka on shore in the boat at once with a few mats of rice and
bags of biscuit--all the provisions we could spare. Then as soon as
the vessel was anchored the captain, Senior, and myself followed. The
resident native teacher met us on the beach, his yellow face and gaunt
frame showing that he, too, had been attacked. Many of the people, he
told us, had gone to the temporary village on Funāfala, where a little
more food could be obtained than on the main island, the groves of palms
there not having suffered so severely from the gale. Among those who had
gone were Susāni and the family who had adopted her, and we heard with
sorrow that there was no hope of the child living, for that morning
some natives had arrived from Funāfala with the news that nearly all the
young children were dead, and those remaining were not expected to live
beyond another day or two.

After spending an hour with the teacher, and watching him distribute the
rice and biscuit among his sick and starving people, we returned to
the ship with the intention of sailing down to Funāfala in the boat and
taking the natives there some provisions. The teacher thanked us warmly,
but declined to come with us, saying that he could not leave the many
for the few, "for," he added sadly, "who will read the service over
those who die? As you sail down the lagoon you will meet canoes coming
up from Funāfala bringing the dead. I cannot go there to bury them."

It was nearly midnight when we put off from the schooner's side, but
with Suka as pilot we ran quickly down to the island. A few natives met
us as we stepped on shore, and to these we gave the provisions we had
brought, telling them to divide them equally. Then with Suka leading,
and carrying a lighted torch made from the spathe of the cocoanut tree,
we made our way through the darkened forest to the house in which Susāni
and her people were living. It was situated on the verge of the shore,
on the weather side of the narrow island, so as to be exposed to the
cooling breath of the trade wind, and consisted merely of a roof of
thatch with open sides, and the ground within covered with coarse mats,
upon which we saw were lying three figures.

Making as little noise as possible Suka called out a name, and a man
threw off his sleeping mat and came out; it was Susāni's adopted father.

"No," he said in his simple manner, in answer to our inquiries, "Susāni
is not yet dead, but she will die at dawn when the tide is low. 'Tis now
her last sleep."

Stepping very softly inside the house so as not to disturb her, we sat
down to wait her awakening. Suka crouched near us, smoking his pipe in
silence, and watching the sleeping girl to see if she moved.

Just as the weird cries of the tropic birds heralded the approach of
dawn, the woman who lay beside Susāni rose and looked into her face.
Then she bade us come nearer.

"She is awake."

The child knew us at once, even in that imperfect light, for the moment
Senior and myself stood up she tried to raise herself into a sitting
posture; in an instant Suka sprang to her aid and pillowed her head upon
his knees; weak as she was, she put out her hand to us, and then let it
lie in the mate's broad palm, her deep, mysterious eyes resting upon
his face with a strange look of happiness shining in them. Presently her
lips moved, and we all bent over her to listen; it was but one word--

"_Fakaalofa!_"{*}

     * "My love to you."

She never spoke again, but lay breathing softly, and as the sun shot
blood red from the sea and showed the deathly pallor of her face, poor
Suka gave way, and his stalwart bosom was shaken with the grief he tried
in vain to suppress. Once more she raised her thin, weak hand as if she
sought to touch his face; he took it tremblingly and placed it against
his cheek; in another moment she had ceased to breathe.

As I walked slowly along the beach to the boat I looked back; the White
Man and the Brown were kneeling together over the little mat-shrouded
figure.



THE END



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