Rídan lived alone in a little hut on the borders of the big German plantation at Mulifenua, away down at the lee end of Upolu Island, and every one of his brown-skinned fellow-workers either hated or feared him, and smiled when Burton, the American overseer, would knock him down for being a ‘sulky brute.’ But no one of them cared to let Rídan see him smile. For to them he was a wizard, a devil, who could send death in the night to those he hated. And so when anyone died on the plantation he was blamed, and seemed to like it. Once, when he lay ironed hand and foot in the stifling corrugated iron ‘calaboose,’ with his blood-shot eyes fixed in sullen rage on Burton’s angered face, Tirauro, a Gilbert Island native assistant overseer, struck him on the mouth and called him ‘a pig cast up by the ocean.’ This was to please the white man. But it did not, for Burton, cruel as he was, called Tirauro a coward and felled him at once. By ill-luck he fell within reach of Rídan, and in another moment the manacled hands had seized his enemy’s throat. For five minutes the three men struggled together, the white overseer beating Rídan over the head with the butt of his heavy Colt’s pistol, and then when Burton rose to his feet the two brown men were lying motionless together; but Tirauro was dead.

From an early age Becke was an adventurer and a wanderer. Before the age of 19 he’d been tried for piracy (he was acquitted) and thereafter joined the Palmer River gold rush for a brief go at mining. Later he became a trader in the South Pacific, where many of his many short stories are set.

This version of Rídan the Devil is from Becke’s collection Rídan the Devil and Other Stories, which is hosted at Project Gutenberg.

Rídan was sick for a long time after this. A heavy flogging always did make him sick, although he was so big and strong. And so, as he could not work in the fields, he was sent to Apia to do light labour in the cotton-mill there. The next morning he was missing. He had swum to a brig lying at anchor in the harbour and hidden away in the empty forehold. Then he was discovered and taken ashore to the mill again, where the foreman gave him ‘a dose of Cameroons medicine’—that is, twenty-five lashes.

‘Send him back to the plantation,’ said the manager, who was a mere German civilian, and consequently much despised by his foreman, who had served in Africa. ‘I’m afraid to keep him here, and I’m not going to punish him if he tries to get away again, poor devil.’

So back he went to Mulifanua. The boat voyage from Apia down the coast inside the reef is not a long one, but the Samoan crew were frightened to have such a man free; so they tied him hand and foot and then lashed him down tightly under the midship thwart with strips of green fau bark. Not that they did so with unnecessary cruelty, but ex-Lieutenant Schwartzkoff, the foreman, was looking on, and then, besides that, this big-boned, light-skinned man was a foreigner, and a Samoan hates a foreigner of his own colour if he is poor and friendless. And then he was an aitu a devil, and could speak neither Samoan, nor Fijian, nor Tokelau, nor yet any English or German.

Clearly, therefore, he was not a man at all, but a manu—a beast, and not to be trusted with free limbs. Did not the foreman say that he was possessed of many devils, and for two years had lived alone on the plantation, working in the field with the gangs of Tokelau and Solomon Island men, but speaking to no one, only muttering in a strange tongue to himself and giving sullen obedience to his taskmasters?

But as they talked and sang, and as the boat sailed along the white line of beach fringed with the swaying palms, Rídan groaned in his agony, and Pulu, the steersman, who was a big strong man and not a coward like his fellows, took pity on the captive.

‘Let us give him a drink,’ he said; ‘he cannot hurt us as he is. Else he may die in the boat and we lose the price of his passage; for the white men at Mulifanua will not pay us for bringing to them a dead man.’

So they cast off the lashings of fau bark that bound Rídan to the thwart, and Pulu, lifting him up, gave him a long drink, holding the gourd to his quivering mouth—for his hands were tied behind him.

‘Let him rest with his back against the side of the boat,’ said Pulu presently; ‘and, see, surely we may loosen the thongs around his wrists a little, for they are cutting into the flesh.’

But the others were afraid, and begged him to let well alone. Then Pulu grew angry and called them cowards, for, as they argued, Rídan fell forward on his face in a swoon.

When ‘the devil’ came to and opened his wearied, blood-shot eyes, Pulu was bathing his forehead with cold water, and his bruised and swollen hands were free. For a minute or so he gasped and stared at the big Samoan, and a heavy sigh broke from his broad naked chest. Then he put his hands to his face—and sobbed.

Pulu drew back in wondering pity—surely no devil could weep—and then, with a defiant glance at the three other Samoans, he stooped down and unbound Rídan’s feet.

‘Let him lie,’ he said, going aft to the tiller. ‘We be four strong men—he is but as a child from weakness. See, his bones are like to cut through his skin. He hath been starved.’

At dusk they ran the boat along the plantation jetty, and Pulu and another man led Ridan up the path to the manager’s house. His hands were free, but a stout rope of sennet was tied around his naked waist and Pulu held the end.

‘Ah, you dumb, sulky devil; you’ve come back to us again, have you?’ said Burton, eyeing him savagely. ‘I wish Schwartzkoff had kept you up in Apia, you murderous, yellow-hided scoundrel!’

‘What’s the use of bully-ragging him?’ remarked the plantation engineer, with a sarcastic laugh; ‘he doesn’t understand a word you say. Club-law and the sasa {*} are the only things that appeal to him—and he gets plenty of both on Mulifanua. Hallo, look at that! Why, he’s kissing Pulu’s toe!’

Burton laughed. ‘So he is. Look out, Pulu, perhaps he’s a kai tagata. Take care he doesn’t bite it off.’

Pulu shook his mop of yellow hair gravely. A great pity filled his big heart, for as he had turned to go back to the boat Rídan had fallen upon his knees and pressed his lips to the feet of the man who had given him a drink.

That night Burton and the Scotch engineer went to Rídan’s hut, taking with them food and a new sleeping-mat. He was sitting cross-legged before a tiny fire of coco-nut shells, gazing at the blue, leaping jets of flame, and as the two men entered, slowly turned his face to them.

‘Here,’ said Burton, less roughly than usual,’ here’s some kai kai for you.’

He took the food from Burton’s hand, set it beside him on the ground, and then, supporting himself on his gaunt right arm and hand, gave the overseer one long look of bitter, undying hatred; then his eyes drooped to the fire again.

‘And here, Rídan,’ said Craik, the engineer, throwing the sleeping-mat upon the ground, ‘that’ll keep your auld bones frae cutting into the ground. And here is what will do ye mair good still,’ and he placed a wooden pipe and a stick of tobacco in ‘the devil’s’ hand. In a moment Rídan was on his knees with his forehead pressed to the ground in gratitude.

The men looked at him in silence for a few moments as he crouched at Craik’s feet, with the light of the fire playing upon his tattooed yellow back and masses of tangled black hair.

‘Come awa’, Burton, leave the puir deevil to himself. And I’m thinking ye might try him on the other tack awhile. Ye have not broken the creature’s spirit yet, and I wouldna try to if I were you—for my own safety. Sit up Rídan, mon, and smoke your pipe.’

Two years before, Rídan had been brought to Samoa by a German labour-ship, which had picked him up in a canoe at sea, somewhere off the coast of Dutch New Guinea. He was the only survivor of a party of seven, and when lifted on board was in the last stage of exhaustion from thirst and hunger. Where the canoe had sailed from, and whither bound, no one on board the Iserbrook could learn, for the stranger spoke a language utterly unknown to anyone of even the Iserbrook’s polyglot ship’s company—men who came from all parts of Polynesia and Micronesia. All that could be learned from him by signs and gestures was that a great storm had overtaken the canoe, many days of hunger and thirst had followed, and then death ended the agonies of all but himself.

In a few weeks, and while the brig was thrashing her way back to Samoa against the south-east trades, Rídan regained his health and strength and became a favourite with all on board, white and brown. He was quite six feet in height, with a bright yellow skin, bronzed by the sun; and his straight features and long black hair were of the true Malayo-Polynesian type. From the back of his neck two broad stripes of bright blue tattooing ran down the whole length of his muscular back, and thence curved outwards and downwards along the back of his thighs and terminated at each heel. No one on the Iserbrook had ever seen similar tattooing, and many were the conjectures as to Rídan’s native place. One word, however, he constantly repeated, ‘Onêata,’ and then would point to the north-west. But no one knew of such a place, though many did of an Oneaka, far to the south-east—an island of the Gilbert Group near the Equator.

The weeks passed, and at last Rídan looked with wondering eyes upon the strange houses of the white men in Apia harbour. By-and-by boats came off to the ship, and the three hundred and odd brown-skinned and black-skinned people from the Solomons and the Admiralties and the countless islands about New Britain and New Ireland were taken ashore to work on the plantations at Vailele and Mulifanua, and Rídan alone was left. He was glad of this, for the white men on board had been kind to him, and he began to hope that he would be taken back to Onêata. But that night he was brought ashore by the captain to a house where many white men were sitting together, smoking and drinking. They all looked curiously at him and addressed him in many island tongues, and Rídan smiled and shook his head and said, ‘Me Rídan; me Onêata.’

‘Leave him with me, Kühne,’ said Burton to the captain of the brig. ‘He’s the best and biggest man of the lot you’ve brought this trip. I’ll marry him to one of my wife’s servants, and he’ll live in clover down at Mulifanua.’

So early next morning Rídan was put in a boat with many other new ‘boys,’ and he smiled with joy, thinking he was going back to the ship—and Onêata. But when the boat sailed round Mulinu’s Point, and the spars of the Iserbrook were suddenly hidden by the intervening line of palm trees, a cry of terror burst from him, and he sprang overboard. He was soon caught, though he dived and swam like a fish. And then two wild-eyed Gilbert Islanders held him by the arms, and laughed as he wept and kept repeating, ‘Onëata, Onëata.’

From that day began his martyrdom. He worked hard under his overseer, but ran away again and again, only to be brought back and tied up. Sometimes, as he toiled, he would look longingly across the narrow strait of sunlit water at the bright green little island of Manono, six miles away; and twice he stole down to the shore at night, launched a canoe and paddled over towards it. But each time the plantation guard-boat brought him back; and then Burton put him in irons. Once he swam the whole distance, braving the sharks, and, reaching the island, hid in a taro swamp till the next night. He meant to steal food and a canoe—and seek for Onëata. But the Manono people found him, and, though he fought desperately, they overcame and bound him, and the women cursed him for a Tâfito and beat and pelted him as the men carried him back to the plantation, tied up like a wild boar, to get their ten dollars reward for him from the manager. And Burton gave him thirty lashes as a corrective.

Then came long, long months of unceasing toil, broken only by attempts to escape, recapture, irons and more lashes. The rest of the native labourers so hated and persecuted him that at last the man’s nature changed, and he became desperate and dangerous. No one but Burton dared strike him now, for he would spring at an enemy’s throat like a madman, and half strangle him ere he could be dragged away stunned, bruised and bleeding. When his day’s slavery was over he would go to his hut, eat his scanty meal of rice, biscuit and yam in sullen silence, and brood and mutter to himself. But from the day of his first flogging no word ever escaped his set lips. All these things he told afterwards to Von Hammer, the supercargo of the Mindora, when she came to Mulifanua with a cargo of new ‘boys.

Von Hammer had been everywhere in the North Pacific, so Burton took him to Rídan’s hut, and called to the ‘sulky devil’ to come out. He came, and sullenly followed the two men into the manager’s big sitting-room, and sat down cross-legged on the floor. The bright lamplight shone full on his nude figure and the tangle of black hair that fell about his now sun-darkened back and shoulders. And, as on that other evening long before, when he sat crouching over his fire, his eyes sought Burton’s face with a look of implacable hatred.

‘See if you can find out where the d—d brute comes from,’ said Burton.

Von Hammer looked at Rídan intently for a minute, and then said one or two words to him in a tongue that the overseer had never before heard.

With trembling limbs and a joyful wonder shining in his dark eyes, Rídan crept up to the supercargo, and then, in a voice of whispered sobs, he told his two years’ tale of bitter misery.

‘Very well,’ said Burton, an hour later, to Von Hammer, ‘you can take him. I don’t want the brute here. But he is a dangerous devil, mind. Where do you say he comes from?’

‘Onêata—Saint David’s Island—a little bit of a sandy atoll, as big as Manono over there, and much like it, too. I know the place well—lived there once when I was pearling, ten years ago. I don’t think the natives there see a white man more than once in five years. It’s a very isolated spot, off the north-east coast of New Guinea. “Bully” Hayes used to call there once. However, let me have him. The Mindora may go to Manila next year; if so, I’ll land him at Onêata on our way there. Anyway, he’s no good to you. And he told me just now that he has been waiting his chance to murder you.’

The Mindora returned to Apia to take in stores, and Von Hammer took Rídan with him, clothed in a suit of blue serge, and with silent happiness illumining his face. For his heart was leaping within him at the thought of Onêata, and of those who numbered him with the dead; and when he clambered up the ship’s side and saw Pulu, the big Samoan, working on deck with the other native sailors, he flung his arms around him and gave him a mighty hug, and laughed like a pleased child when Von Hammer told him that Pulu would be his shipmate till he saw the green land and white beach of Onêata once more.

Six months out from Samoa the Mindora was hove-to off Choiseul Island, in the Solomon Group, waiting for her boat. Von Hammer and four hands had gone ashore to land supplies for a trader, and the brig was awaiting his return. There was a heavy sea running on the reef as the boat pushed off from the beach in the fast-gathering darkness; but who minds such things with a native crew? So thought Von Hammer as he grasped the long, swaying steer oar, and swung the whale-boat’s head to the white line of surf. ‘Give it to her, boys; now’s our chance—there’s a bit of a lull now, eh, Pulu? Bend to it, Rídan, my lad.’

Out shot the boat, Pulu pulling stroke, Rídan bow-oar, and two sturdy, square-built Savage Islanders amidships. Surge after surge roared and hissed past in the darkness, and never a drop of water wetted their naked backs; and then, with a wild cry from the crew and a shouting laugh from the steersman, she swept over and down the edge of the reef and gained the deep water—a second too late! Ere she could rise from the blackened trough a great curling roller towered high over, and then with a bursting roar fell upon and smothered her. When she rose to the surface Von Hammer was fifty feet away, clinging to the steer-oar. A quick glance showed him that none of the crew were missing—they were all holding on to the swamped boat and ‘swimming’ her out away from the reef, and shouting loudly for him to come alongside. Pushing the steer-oar before him, he soon reached the boat, and, despite his own unwillingness, his crew insisted on his getting in. Then, each still grasping the gunwale with one hand, they worked the boat out yard by yard, swaying her fore and aft whenever a lull in the seas came, and jerking the water out of her by degrees till the two Savage Islanders were able to clamber in and bale out with the wooden bucket slung under the after-thwart, while the white man kept her head to the sea. But the current was setting them steadily along, parallel with the reef, and every now and then a sea would tumble aboard and nearly fill her again. At last, however, the Savage Islanders got her somewhat free of water, and called to Pulu and Rídan to get in—there were plenty of spare canoe-paddles secured along the sides in case of an emergency such as this.

‘Get in, Pulu, get in,’ said Rídan to the Samoan, in English; ‘get in quickly.’

But Pulu refused. He was a bigger and a heavier man than Rídan, he said, and the boat was not yet able to bear the weight of a fourth man. This was true, and the supercargo, though he knew the awful risk the men ran, and urged them to jump in and paddle, yet knew that the additional weight of two such heavy men as Rídan and Pulu meant death to all, for every now and then a leaping sea would again fill the boat to the thwarts.

And then suddenly, amid the crashing sound of the thundering rollers on the reef, Rídan raised his voice in an awful shriek.

‘Quick! Pulu, quick! Some shark hav’ come. Get in, get in first,’ he said in his broken English. And as he spoke he grasped the gunwale with both hands and raised his head and broad shoulders high out of the water, and a bubbling, groan-like sound issued from his lips.

In an instant the big Samoan swung himself into the boat, and Von Hammer called to Rídan to get in also.

‘Nay, oh, white man!’ he answered, in a strange choking voice, ‘let me stay here and hold to the boat. We are not yet safe from the reef. But paddle, paddle… quickly!’

In another minute or two the boat was out of danger, and then Rídan’s voice was heard.

‘Lift me in,’ he said quietly, ‘my strength is spent.’

The two Savage Islanders sprang to his aid, drew him up over the side, and tumbled him into the boat. Then, without a further look, they seized their paddles and plunged them into the water. Rídan lay in a huddled-up heap on the bottom boards.

‘Exhausted, poor devil!’ said Von Hammer to himself, bending down and peering at the motionless figure through the darkness. Then something warm flowed over his naked foot as the boat rolled, and he looked closer at Rídan, and—

‘Oh, my God!’ burst from him—both of Rídan’s legs were gone—bitten off just above the knees.

Twenty minutes later, as the boat came alongside the Mindora, Rídan ‘the devil’ died in the arms of the man who had once given him a drink.