The Vision of Milli the Slave

by Louis Becke

One day a message came over from Tetoro, King of Paré, in Tahiti, to his vassal Mahua, chief of Tetuaroa,{*} saying, 'Get thee ready a great feast, for in ten days I send thee my daughter Laea to be wife to thy son Narü.

     * Tetuaroa is an island about forty miles from Tahiti. It
     was in those days (1808) part of the hereditary possessions
     of the chief of Paré.

For Narü, the son of the chief of Tetuaroa, had long been smitten with the beauty of Laea, and desired to make her his wife. Only once had he seen her; but since then he had sent over many canoes laden with presents, such as hogs and turtle, and great bunches of plantains, and fine tappa cloth for her acceptance.

But Tetoro, her father, was a greedy man, and cried for more; and Mahua, so that his son might gain his heart's desire, became hard and cruel to the people of Tetuaroa.

Day after day he sent his servants to every village on the island demanding from them all such things as would please the eye of Tetoro; so that by-and-by there was but little left in their plantations, and still less in their houses.

And so, with sullen faces and low murmurs of anger, the people yielded up their treasures of mats and tappa cloth, and such other things that the servants of the chief discovered in their dwellings, and watched them carried away to appease the avarice of Tetoro the King.

One night, when they were gathered together in their houses, and the torches of tui tui (candle-nut kernels) were lighted, they talked among themselves, not loudly but in whispers, for no one knew but that one of the chiefs body-men might perhaps be listening outside, and that to them meant swift death from the anger of Mahua.

'Why has this misfortune come upon us?' they said to one another. 'Why should Narü, who is an aito{*} set his heart upon the daughter of Tetoro when there are women of as good blood as her close to his hand? Surely, when she comes here to live, then will there be hard times in the land, and we shall be eaten up with hunger.'

     * A man distinguished in warfare.

'Ay,' said a girl named Milli, 'it is hard that we should give our all to a strange woman.'

She spoke very loudly, and without fear, and the rest of the people looked wonderingly at her, for she was but a poor slave, and, as such, should not have raised her voice when men were present. So they angrily bade her be silent. Who was she that dared to speak of such things? If she died of hunger, they said, what did it matter? She was but a girl and a slave, and girls' lives were worth nothing until they bore male children.

And then Milli the Slave sprang up, her eyes blazing with anger, and heaped scorn upon them for cowards.

'See,' she said, and her voice shook with passion; 'see me, Milli the Slave, standing before ye all, and listen to my words, so that your hearts may grow strong, even as strong as mine has grown. Listen while I tell thee of a dream that came to me in the night.

'In my dream this land of ours became as it was fifteen moons ago, and as it may never be again. I saw the groves of plantains, with their loads of fruit, shine red and yellow, like the setting of the sun, and the ground was forced open because of the great size of the yams and taro and arrowroot that grew beneath; and I heard the heavy fall of the ripe coconuts on the grass, and the crooning notes of the pigeons that fed upon the red mati berries were as the low booming of the surf on the reef when it sounds far distant.'

For a little while she ceased, and the people muttered.

'Ay, it was so, fifteen moons ago.'

And then Milli, sinking upon one knee, and spreading out her arms towards them, spoke again, but in a low, soft voice,—

'And I saw the white beach of Teavamoa black with turtle that could scarce crawl seaward because of their fatness; and saw the canoes, filled to the gunwales with white, shining fish, come paddling in from the lagoon; and then came the night. And in the night I heard the sound of the vivo{*} and the beat of the drum, and the songs and laughter and the shouts of the people as they made merry and sang and danced, and ate and drank, till the red sun burst out from the sea, and they lay down to sleep.

     * Nasal flute.

'And then, behold there came into my dream, a small black cloud. It gathered together at Paré, and rose from the ground, and was borne across the sea to Tetuaroa.{*} As it came nearer, darker and darker grew the shadows over this land, till at last it was wrapped up in the blackness of night. And then out of the belly of the cloud there sprang a woman arrayed as a bride, and behind her there followed men with faces strange to me, whose stamping footsteps shook the island to its roots in the deep sea. Then came a mystic voice to me, which said,—

"Follow and see."

     * Tetoro's canoe, in which he sent his daughter to Tetuaroa,
     was painted black by an English sailor who, living under his
     protection, afterwards married his daughter.

'So I followed and saw'—she sprang to her feet, and her voice rang sharp and fierce—'I saw the strange woman and those with her pass swiftly over the land like as the shadows of birds fall upon the ground when the sun is high and their flight is low and quick. And as they passed, the plantains and taro and arrowroot were torn up and stripped and left to perish; and there was nought left of the swarms of turtle and fish but their bones; for the black cloud and the swift shadows that ran before it had eaten out the heart of the land, and not even one coco-nut was left.

'And then I heard a great crying and weeping of many voices, and I saw men and women lying down in their houses with their bones sticking out of their skins; and wild pigs, perishing with hunger, sprang in upon them and tore their bellies open with their tusks, and devoured them, and fought with each other among the bones and blood of those they ate.'

A groan of terror burst from the listening people, and the slave girl, with her lips parted and her white teeth set, looked with gleaming, angry eyes slowly round the group.

'Again I heard the cries and the groans and the weeping; and I saw thee, Foani, take thy suckling child from thy withered breast, and give it to thy husband, so that it might be slain to feed thy other children. And then thou, too, Tiria, and thou, Hini, and many other women, did I see slay thy children and their children, and cook and eat them, even as the wild pigs had eaten those men and women that lay dying on their mats. And this, O people! is all of the dream that came to me; for then a great sweat ran down over my body, and a heavy pain came upon my heart, so that I awoke.'

She trembled and sank down again among the women, in the midst of whom she had been sitting, and then growling, angry murmurs ran round the assemblage, and the names of Narü and the king's daughter passed from lip to lip.

Well as they liked their chief's son—for he was distinguished alike for his bravery and generosity—they yet saw that his marriage with Laea would mean a continued existence of misery to them all, or at least so long as the young man's passion for his wife lasted.

Past experience had taught them many a bitter lesson, for ever since their island had been conquered, they had been subjected to the payment of the most exacting tribute.

Fertile as was Tetuaroa, the continued demands made upon its people for food by the royal family of Tahiti had frequently reduced them to a condition bordering upon starvation.

But these requests had, of late years, been so much modified, that the island, under the rule of Mahua, had become renowned for its wealth of food and the prosperous condition of its inhabitants.

It was, therefore, with no pleasant feelings that the people viewed the approaching marriage of the son of their chief to the child of the grasping Tetoro, a man who would certainly see no abatement made in the extortions he had succeeded in inducing his vassal Mahua to again inaugurate.

At midnight, long after the women were asleep, the principal men of the island met together and talked of the dream described by the slave girl. So firmly were they convinced that she had been chosen by the gods as a means of warning them of their impending rate if the marriage took place, that they firmly resolved to frustrate it, even if it cost every one of them his life.

But, so that neither Mahua nor his son should suspect their intentions, they set about to prepare for the great feast ordered by Tetoro; and for the next week or so the whole population was busily engaged in bringing together their various presents of food and goods, and conveying them to the chief's house, where, on the arrival of the fleet of canoes that would bring the king's daughter from Paré, they would be presented to her in person by the priests and minor chiefs.

On the afternoon of the tenth day, some men whom Mahua had set to watch for Tetoro's fleet saw the great mat sails of five war canoes sweeping across the long line of palms that fringed the southern beach? Then there was great commotion, and many pu{*} were sounded from one end of the island to the other, bidding the people to assemble at the landing-place and welcome the bride of the chiefs son.

     * The conch shell.

Now, it so happened that Narü, when the cry arose that the canoes were coming, was sitting alone in a little bush-house near the south point of the island. He had come there with two or three of his young men attendants, so that he might be dressed and adorned to meet Tetoro's daughter. As soon as they had completed their task he had sent them away, for he intended to remain in the bush-house till his father sent for him; for such was the custom of the land.

Very gay and handsome he looked, when presently he stood up and looked out over the lagoon to where the canoes were entering the passage. Round his waist was a girdle of bright yellow strips of plantain leaves, mixed with the scarlet leaves of the ti plant; a band of pearl-shell ornaments encircled his forehead, and his long, black hair, perfumed with scented oil, was twisted up in a high spiral knob, and ornamented with scarlet hibiscus flowers. Across one broad shoulder there hung a small, snowy-white poncho or cape, made of fine tappa cloth, and round his wrists and ankles were circlets of pearl shell, enclosed in a netting of black coir cinnet. On each leg there was tattooed, in bright blue, a coco-nut tree, its roots spreading out at the heel and running in wavy lines along the instep to the toes, its elastic stalk shooting upwards till its waving plumes spread gracefully out on the broad, muscular calf.

Yet, although he was so finely arrayed, Narü was troubled in his mind; for not once did those who had dressed him speak of Laea, and this the young man thought was strange, for he would have been pleased to hear them talk to him of her beauty. In silence had they attended to his needs, and this hurt him, for they were all dear friends. So at last, when they rose to leave him, he had said,—

'Why is it that none of ye speak either to me, or to one another? Am I a corpse that is dressed for the funeral rites?'

Then one of them, named Tanéo, his foster-brother, answered, and bent his head as he spoke,—

'Oh, Narü, son of Mahua, and mine own brother, hast thou not heard of the dream of Milli?'

At the name of Milli, the hot blood leapt into the face of the chief's son; but he answered quickly,—

'Nay, naught have I heard, and how can the dream of a slave girl concern me on such a day as this?'

'Oh, Narü!' replied Tanéo, ''tis more than a dream; for the god Oro hath spoken to her, and shown her things that concern thee and all of thy father's people.' And with that the young men arose and left him without further speech.

Little did Narü know that scarce a stone's throw away from where he stood, Milli, with love in her eyes, was watching him from behind a clump of plantain trees. She, too, was arrayed as if for a dance or a marriage, and behind her were a number of women, who were crouched together and spoke only in whispers.

As they stood, the sounds of the drums and flutes and conches came from the village, and then Narü went forth from the little house, and walked towards it through the palm grove.

As he stepped proudly along the shaded path he heard his name called in a low voice, and Milli the Slave stood before him with downcast eyes, and barred his path.

Now, Narü, bold as he was, feared to meet this girl, and so for some moments no words came to him, and Milli, looking quickly up, saw that he had placed his right hand over his eyes. Then she spoke,—

'See, Narü, I do but come to thee to speak some little words; so turn thy face to me once more; for from this day thou shalt never again see Milli the Slave.'

But Narü, still keeping his hand to his eyes, turned aside, and leaning his forehead against the trunk of a palm-tree, kept silence awhile. Then he said, in a low voice,—

'Oh, Milli, be not too hard! This woman Laea hath bewitched me—and then—thou art but a slave.'

'Aye,' answered the girl, softly, 'I am but a slave, and this Laea is very beautiful and the daughter of a great chief. So for that do I come to say farewell, and to ask thee to drink with me this bowl of orange juice. 'Tis all I have to offer, for I am poor and have no wedding gift to give thee; and yet with this mean offering do I for ever give thee the hot love of my heart—ay, and my life also, if thou should'st need it.'

And so, to please the girl whom he had once loved, he received from her hand the drink of orange juice, which she took from a basket she carried, and yet as he drank he looked away, for he feared to see her eyes looking into his.

Only one word did he say as he turned away, and that was 'Farewell,' and Milli answered 'Farewell, Narü;' but when he had gone some distance she followed him and sobbed softly to herself.

And soon, as Narü walked, his body swayed to and fro and his feet struck the roots of the trees that grew out through the soil along the path. Then Milli, running swiftly up, caught him as he fell, and laid his head upon her knees. His eyes were closed and his skin dead to her touch.

Presently the bushes near by parted, and two women came out, and lifting Narü between them, they carried the young man to a shady place and laid him down.

And then Milli wept as she bent her face over that of the man she loved, but the two older women bade her cease.

Once more the girl looked at Narü, and then, stepping out into the path, ran swiftly towards the village.

The five canoes were now sailing quickly over the smooth lagoon, with the streamers from their mat sails floating in the wind, and on the stages that ran from their sides to the outriggers were grouped parties of singers and dancers, with painted bodies and faces dyed scarlet with the juice of the mati berry, who sang and danced, and shouted, and made a brave show for the people who awaited their coming on the shore.

On the great stage of the first canoe, which was painted black, was seated Laea, surrounded by her women attendants, who joined in the wild singing whenever the name of their mistress formed the singers' theme.

Then suddenly, as each steersman let fall from his hand his great steering paddle, which was secured by a rope to the side, the canoes ran up into the wind, the huge mat sails were lowered, the stone anchors dropped overboard, and the music and dancing ceased.

And then a strange thing happened, and Laea, who was of a proud and haughty disposition, as became her lineage, grew pale with anger; for suddenly the great crowd of people which had assembled on the beach seemed to sway to and fro, and then separate and form into two bodies; and she saw that the women and children had gathered apart from the men and stood in a compact mass on the brow of the beach, and the men, in strange, ominous quiet, spear and club in hand, had ranged, without a sound, in battle array before her escort.

There was silence awhile, and then Tanéo, the foster brother of Narü, clothed in his armour of cinnet fibre, and grasping a short stabbing spear in his hand, stepped out of the ranks.

'Get thee back again to Tahiti, O men of Paré,' he said quietly, striking his spear into the sand. 'This marriage is not to our minds.'

Then Laea, as she looked at the amazed and angered faces of her people as they heard Tanéo's insulting words, dashed aside her attendants, and leaping from the canoe into the shallow water, walked to the shore, and stood face to face with him.

'Who art thou, fellow, to stand before the daughter of Tetoro the King, with a spear in thy rude hand, and thy mouth filled with saucy words?'

'I am Tanéo, the foster brother of the man thou seekest to marry. And because that a warning hath come to us against this marriage do I stand here, spear in hand.'

Laea laughed scornfully.

'I seek thy brother in marriage? Thou fool! Would I, the daughter of my father, seek any man for husband? Hath not this Narü pestered me so with his presents and his love-offerings that, for very weariness, and to please my father, I turned my face from the Englishman who buildeth ships for him, and said "Aye" to this Narü—who is but a little man{*}—when he besought me to be wife to him. Ah! the Englishman, who is both a clever and strong man, is more to my liking.'

     * Meaning in rank.

'Get thee back, then, to thy Englishman, and leave to me my lover,' cried a woman's voice, and Milli the Slave, thrusting aside the armed men who sought to stay her, sprang out upon the sand, and clenching her hands tightly, gazed fiercely at the king's daughter.

'Thy lover!' and Laea looked contemptuously at the small, slender figure of the slave girl, and then her cheek darkened with rage as she turned to her followers. 'See how this dog of a Narü hath insulted me! Have I come all this way to be fooled for the sake of such a miserable creature as this?' and she pointed scornfully to Milli and then spat on the ground. 'Where is this fellow? Let him come near to me so that I may tell him to his face that I have ever despised him as one beneath me. Where is he, I ask thee, girl?' And she seized the slave girl by her wrist.

The savage fury of her voice, her blazing eyes, and noble, commanding presence, excited alike both her own people and the clustering throng of armed men that stood watching on the beach, for these latter, by some common impulse moved nearer, and at the same time every man in the five canoes sprang out, and, dashing through the water, ranged themselves beside their mistress.

'Back!' cried Tanéo, warningly; 'back, ye men of Paré, back, ere it be too late, and thou, Laea, harm not the girl, for see, O foolish woman! we here are as ten to one, and 'twill be a bloody day for thee and thy people if but a spear be raised.'

And then, facing round, he cried, 'And back, O men of Tetuaroa. Why draw ye so near? Must blood run because of the vain and bitter words of a silly woman?'

Then, with an angry gesture, Laea released her hold of the slave girl's slender wrist, and she, too, held up a warning hand to her warriors.

'True, Tanéo,' she said mockingly; 'thy people are as ten to one of mine, as thou sayest, and for this alone dost thou dare insult me. Oh, thou coward, Tanéo!'

A swift gleam of anger shone in Tanéo's eyes, and his hand grasped his spear tightly. Then he looked steadily at the king's daughter, and answered.

'Nay, no coward am I, Laea. And see, if but a little blood will appease thee, take this spear and slay me. It is better for one to die than many.' Stretching out his hand, he gave her his spear.

She waved it back sneeringly.

'Thy words are brave, Tanéo; but only because that behind them lieth no danger. Only a coward could talk as—'

He sprang back.

'Ho, men of Paré! Listen! So that but one or two men may die, and many live, let this quarrel lie between me and any one of ye that will battle with me here, spear to spear, on this beach. Is it not better so than that Tetoro the King should weep for so many of his people?'

A tall, grey-headed old warrior leapt out from the ranks of those that stood behind Laea.

'Thou and I, Tanéo, shall fight till one of us be slain.'

Suddenly Milli the Slave sprang between them with outstretched arms.

'Peace, peace! Drop thou thy spear, Tanéo, and thou thine, old man. There is no need for blood but mine—for Narü is dead.'

Then, kneeling on the sand she said, 'Draw near to me and listen.'

Quickly the opposing parties formed a circle around her; before her stood the haughty and angry Laea; behind her, and standing side by side, Tanéo and the grey-haired Tahitian warrior.

'I am Milli, the bond-woman of Mahua, the father of Narü. And Narü loved me; but because of thee, O Laea, he turned from me, and my heart became cold. For who would give food to my child when it was born—the child of a slave whose lover was a chief and who had cast her off? And then there came a vision to me in the night, and I saw the things of which I have told ye, O men of Tetuaroa. And I knew that the black cloud of my vision was sent to warn the people of this land against the marriage, and the hunger and the bitter days of poverty that would come of it. And so, because thou art a great woman, O Laea, and I but a poor slave, did I meet Narü but a little while since and give him to drink; and when he drank of that which I gave him he died, for it was poisoned.'

A low murmur, half anger, half pity, broke from the assembled people.

'Thou fool!' said Laea, pityingly; and then she turned to Tanéo.

'And so thy brother hath died by the hand of a slave? Let us part in peace. Farewell!'

And then, as the men of Paré returned in silence to their canoes, Tanéo and his people closed in upon the kneeling figure of the slave girl, who bent her head as a man stepped before her with a club.

When the five canoes had sailed away a little distance from the beach, Laea saw the men of Tetuaroa open out their ranks, and, looking in the midst, she saw, lying face downwards on the sand, the body of Milli the Slave.