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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 4 (July 1, 1937)

Alpheim — A Short Story

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A Short Story.

“Alpheim had crept back to the door without my hearing him. He stood looking down at me and his eyes blazed.”

“Alpheim had crept back to the door without my hearing him. He stood looking down at me and his eyes blazed.”

McKinley cut the end off a cigar.

“What would you do if your daughter ran away with a Kanaka?” “Shoot him,” Schiska said.

McKinley took a look at the cigar.

Well, he began, there was a trader in Samoa once, named Alpheim, and he had a daughter—Elsa was her name. I used to be in the Constabulary then. Our O.C. was an Englishman. He spoke Chinese, and was the best revolver-shot I ever saw.

“The same again,” said Crosby, to the steward.

One day a bunch of us were yarning at the kava-bowl behind the station, when a native corporal came up to me and said, “Please sir, the Inspector want to see you, sir.”

“What's happened now?” I thought.

And as I walked away the boys called after me, “You're on the mat!”

I put on a tunic, and a cap, and went in to the office.

The Old Man was writing at his desk. He had a cigarette glued to his lip, and one eye nearly closed—to keep the smoke out—and when he looked at me, about an inch of ash dropped off on his white coat.

I tore off a salute.

“Oh yes,” he says.

“It's you, McKinley. Take a seat.”

I knew then that I wasn't on the mat.

The Old Man kept on writing for a while; I listened to him. He was using a red fountain-pen as bulky as the handle of a broom, and wrote so big that you could read it upside down.

“I have a job for you,” he says at last. “In Fangaloa Bay. There's been a bit of trouble there.”

I waited. I had come in to Apia from an outpost, and there was a party on that night.

The Old Man gets up and begins to walk about the office.

“You have been to Fangaloa, of course?” he asks me.

“No sir,” I said (and it was true), but there was nothing doing.

“Well,” he tells me, “there's a trader over there named Alpheim. He has been threatening the natives with a shotgun, and they're scared of him.”

I waited while he lit another cigarette.

“And what am I supposed to do?” I asked. “Arrest him?”

“No,” says the Old Man.

“We'd better get the shotgun, though.”

I eyed him for a moment, and he looked away.

“I don't believe it's licensed,” he goes on (as if that made a difference). So I said, “Suppose I ask him for it and he pays the license. Where would we be then?”

But the Old Man had thought of everything.

There was a section in the Ordinance empowering him to call in firearms for inspection.

“Show him this,” he says.

He handed me an order, ready signed. But when I took it from him, he was looking out the window.

I had heard of Alpheim, but that's all.

Apia is a peculiar place: there's only one real street, but even after you have lived there for a year or so you're always running into men you've never seen before. And there are fellows in the stores along the Beach who seem to disappear as soon page 33 as they go home. You don't know who they are, or where they live, or anything about them. Yet they all know you.

It makes you feel a stranger there.

I knew that Alpheim lived at Fangaloa, and that he hadn't been to Apia for years; but when it comes to calling on a man whose habits run to loaded guns, you wish that he had known you all your life.

I looked at the Old Man and asked, “What is this fellow Alpheim?—German?”

“No,” he says. “A Pole. Queer fellow. Saw him last in 1929. He played me highbrow music on a gramophone—the New World Symphony or something; anyway, give me a military band. He talks a lot, he reads a lot; he likes a good cigar. You ought to keep him up all night.”

I thought of Alpheim, living there alone. I thought about the party.

They know how to put on a party in Samoa.

As I was going out the door the Old Man said, “You'd better put these in your bag.”

He handed me an old pair of binoculars.

“And don't forget the shotgun,” he called after me. “It's a cheap single-barrel, with a small piece broken off the butt-plate.”

That man knew and remembered guns like other men know horses, the pedigree thereof, and their performances.

I dug up a few books, a tin of Dutch cigars, some needles for the gramophone, and two bottles of square gin that I'd been saving for the party.

And I went to Fangaloa.

They welcomed me as if I were the leader of an army that had saved a town. An old chief took me to his house. Some girls spread mats for us, and we sat down.

“The day is decorated by Your Excellency's presence,” says the old chief, “but you should have brought a gun.”

“What for?” I asked him.

But the only answer he would give me was a diplomatic smile.

He knew that I would side with Alpheim.

When another white man goes wrong, in the tropics, you will help him if you can; but if you have to make excuses for him to the natives—well, it hurts your pride.

I wanted to believe that Alpheim wasn't half as bad as they'd made out. Just then, we heard a gun go off across the bay. I reached for the binoculars and ran outside.

At Fangaloa the bay comes in so sharply that the villages on one shore face those on the other; Alpheim lived at Lona, on the far side of the bay. I could see ten or fifteen thatched huts in amongst the coconuts and breadfruit-trees; they were about three-quarters of a mile away.

I got the glasses focussed on the only iron roof there was; and it looked hot enough to fry an egg on.

“Bring me a canoe,” I said.

The old chief sent a boy to paddle me. We had about an inch of freeboard, and the bay was choppy.

All the way across I watched the store.

The boy was all right till I'd stepped ashore. He then said “Ia, ua lava,” “That's enough,” and backed out the canoe. The old chief was still standing on the beach, with a small crowd behind him; they were as wooden as the figures in an old-time wedding-group, but I could feel their eyes on me.

I wondered what was wrong.

Aiii,” says the boy, “the white man over there is mad.”

I picked up my valise and started for the store.

It was a wooden building with barred windows, heavy shutters, and a small verandah; and it faced the sea. The front door was open, but the windows closed. This gave me the idea there was someone watching me.

I took care not to hesitate as I approached the door. I glanced down at the front steps—there were three of them.

When I looked up again, the first thing I set eyes on was the barrel of a gun.

I was as nervous as a young horse in the middle of a bridge.

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There was a brass sight on the gun, and I died several deaths before I noticed it was on the left side of the muzzle, not on top.

The gun was on a table, not ten feet away; I had the Old Man's order in my pocket, and the door was open wide.

I listened for some movement; there was none. So I lowered my valise and stole up to that door.

A voice roared, “So they send for a policeman, did they?”

And I damn near dropped the gin on the verandah.

Alpheim had been lying on a couch behind the door.

He started to get up as I came in. I noticed that he had dark eyes with a peculiar look in them, and was a bigger man than me.

I just said, “Mr. Alpheim, I presume?”

“There is no other white man here.”

We eyed each other like two animals.

Alpheim was over six feet tall, with gray hair that stood up from his forehead like a brush and a huge white moustache discoloured by tobacco stains; this gave him the appearance of a grand-duke, or an exiled emperor. He would have been a knockout in a uniform.

He was wearing a red lava-lava with white flowers on it, and was naked to the waist. His flesh was so white and puffy that it looked obscene, and he had elephantiasis on the left arm; the hand had swollen so much that it was deformed.

His feet were bare.

The British in Samoa do not like a man who goes about barefooted; and you can sleep in a lava-lava, or go bathing in one, but that's all.

“What are you looking at?” asked Alpheim.

He spoke with a foreign accent, and it made his voice sound harsh.

Behind him, on the floor, was a thick tumbler with a dead cockroach in it. But there was no sign of a bottle. Then I remembered Alpheim was supposed to run a still.

I asked him if he'd like a gin.

He watched through narrowed eyelids while I unfastened the valise.

As soon as he saw the bottle in my hand he mumbled, “You're the only white man I have seen this year. I wondered who it was with boots on. What's your name?”

I told him.

“What?” he shouted. “You're not the gentleman they all call ‘Red’ McKinley?”

“Yes,” I said.

And his whole manner changed.

He suddenly became mysterious, and confidential. He grabbed me by the hand.

“Why,” he exclaimed, “I've heard my daughter speak about you!”

His voice dropped, and he peered about the room.

“You are her Fairy Prince,” he whispered. “But you should have come before.”

I stared at him.

He was dead serious.

I felt the bottle slipping through my fingers, so I shoved it on the table.

“Wait,” he said. “I get a corkscrew and some glasses.”

Before he'd finished speaking he dived through a reed curtain into the next room. The curtain rustled for a moment, like tall grass when there's something moving through it, and was still.



I sat down without knowing it.

It was a square room with four doorways. The door leading to the store was closed. A row of bookshelves ran along one wall. The gramophone stood on a home-made cabinet. There was a dresser with blue china, a decanter and a coffeepot on it; two easy-chairs with seats of undressed hide; some cane chairs painted in bright colours; and a kava-bowl on a low stand. The inside of the bowl was coated with a green deposit like enamel; it takes years to get a bowl like that.

The floor was covered with the mats they make up in the Tokelaus. On one wall was a fine-mat, handwoven, with a border of red parrot feathers at each end. Above the doorway Alpheim had gone through, were head-knives, with a sharp hook on the blade. There were a few Niue Island fans, old calendars, model canoes, and necklaces of seeds and shells draped over little nails, so that they formed a pattern on the wall.

An ornamental lamp without a glass hung from the ceiling. Beyond this I could see a coloured portrait of a girl, almost life-size, in an oval frame. I got up and went over to it.

She was a half-caste with black hair that had blue light in it, and an hibiscus flower behind her ear. She had the same complexion as a senorita, and her eyes looked real. There was the shadow of a smile around her mouth. She was about eighteen. When I heard Alpheim coming I sat down again.

I saw him through the curtain just before he stepped into the room.

He had dressed up a bit. He wore a white shirt with wide sleeves, and a pair of those duck trousers with bell-bottoms that they sell in Pago-Pago. His feet were thrust into a pair of Chinese slippers without heels. He held a corkscrew in one hand and glasses in the other.

“Well,” he said. “You like my daughter?”

I was so embarrassed that he laughed.

“I think she's very pretty,” I commented.

He waited for a moment while he drew the cork.

“There is no other like her in the South Seas,” he said proudly. “If any man lay hands on her, I blow his brains out.”

He glanced at me very quickly and then looked away.

I suddenly felt sorry for him. If you'd lived in the Islands you'd know why; the girls ripen very quickly there.

He waited till I'd poured myself a drink, and then took one that would have made me choke.

I hesitated.

“Oh,” he said. “You like water with it, eh?”

He took the decanter from the dresser and walked to the back door; but before he went outside he turned slowly and regarded me with such a queer look that I felt uncomfortable.

As soon as he had gone I reached over for the gun. It had been reloaded with one of those brass shells they use for buckshot. I squinted through the barrel; it was dirty.

“You leave that gun alone!”

Alpheim had crept back to the door without my hearing him. He stood there looking down at me, and his eyes blazed.

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“You think I don't know why you come here? Pouf!”

I felt as guilty as a small boy in a pantry. I couldn't think of anything to say; but he had forced me to remember I was on official business.

So I produced the Old Man's order.



Alpheim took it with the first and second fingers of his good hand and held it some distance from him, like a connoisseur examining some object of great rarity. He read it with raised eyebrows, frowned, pursed his lips, and waved the order gently to and fro.

I was reminded of a tiger making slow sweeps with his tail.

“You listen,” he began. “You can tell Captain Arthur I see through this trick. If there is any law that say someone must inspect my gun, then you inspected it just now. You think it won't go off, huh? My gun shoots very well.”

“I don't doubt it,” I replied. “We heard the shot you fired this afternoon.”

Alpheim took a quick step towards me.

With that misshapen hand of his, he brought the decanter down on to the table with a crash; he then leaned on it heavily, crushed the Old Man's order up into a ball, pushed one finger at me like a pistol barrel, got up on tip-toe, and shouted:

“To-mor-row, when you go, I pay the li-cense money. Yes! I ren-der unto King George what is his. The gun is mine. I keep it! Now I have a drink with you. Manuia!

“Here's mud in your eye,” I murmured.

Alpheim let go the decanter as if it were red-hot, and collapsed into a chair.

“Ho, ho,” he howled. “But there is no mud in my eye. I can see very well.”

He laughed until he choked for breath. Tears trickled down his cheeks and vanished into his moustache. I wondered what the devil I could do with him.

I dipped one hand into my valise and brought out the cigars; I did it with a flourish, like a conjuror producing a white rabbit from a hat.

Alpheim stopped laughing as it were in mid-air, as a child stops crying when you bring out an apple from behind your back.

“Cigars,” he murmured dreamily, “cigars! Most of the time I'm smoking this Samoan tobacco.”

I handed him the tin.

He took one, closed his eyes, and gently drew it lengthwise like a feather underneath his nose.

At that moment Alpheim was the most engaging rascal I had ever seen.

“Not now,” he sighed, “not now. I smoke it after dinner.”

He uttered the word dinner in a way that made me think of coffee and liqueurs, and slow music, and women in the arms of men in evening-clothes.

I wondered if he'd ever been an actor.

“Ah,” he said. “You must forgive me. I was a long way off then. Maybe you like a bath before your dinner? It is late already.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I am feeling a bit grubby, and if I don't get into a pair of slacks it won't be long before the mosquitoes are eating me alive.”

Alpheim laughed and held out his disfigured arm.

“It is because of the mosquitoes I get this; those are the ones that bite you in the daytime, though.”

I followed him in silence to the back door.

“There,” he said. “You see that track? It goes right to the bathingpool. I do not use the water in my tanks to bath in. Do you like coffee with your dinner? Or are you one of those New Zealanders who drink tea you can stand the spoon up in?”

“Coffee for me,” I told him. “And if you look in my valise you'll find some books I brought you.”

“Indeed,” he exclaimed. “You are like Santa Claus. There is no bottom to that bag of yours.”

I watched him as he went back to the house; and he was talking to himself. He had forgotten me.

Behind the house there was a little garden, fenced with stakes; the track disappeared around one corner of it. I saw a few pumpkins, water-melons, and a papaia-tree. Before I turned the corner I looked back.

Alpheim was lolling against a doorpost, twirling his moustache.

A man who lives alone too much is dangerous; there is a brittle surface to his mind—like ice above a frozen pond—and you have no way of knowing how much of your weight that “ice” will bear, or what lies under it.

I went down to the pool.

In all Samoan villages there is a bathing-pool. On washing days the women gossip while they beat their clothes clean on flat stones. Girls often bathe there in the evening, naked. They will sit down in the water and call out “Talofa” to you as you pass; and if you are embarrassed they all laugh.

But you couldn't get one of those girls to wear a one-piece bathing costume for a hundred pounds. She would think it was indecent; she would be ashamed.



The pool lay at the bottom of a little fall. There was a kapok-tree above it, and it was hidden from the village by a clump of guava scrub.

I undressed and slid into the water.

It was dusk. The air was heavy with the scent of wood-smoke, foliage, and frangipanni. There were crickets page 38 chirping in the trees. I was relieved to be alone.

As I began to soap myself I heard low voices, and sat on the bottom of the pool.

An old woman and a girl had come with buckets, to get water from the stream. They both called out, “Talofa,” and the girl went on; but the old woman paused to chat to me.

“When did you come?” she asked.

“To-day,” I answered, hoping to get rid of her.

But the old girl had me where she wanted me. She calmly squatted on the bank.

“And what about the Mad One?”

She glanced toward the store.

“Well,” I answered. “What about him?”

“He has a very pretty daughter,” said the woman, looking at me sideways.

I noticed an unusual inflection in her voice.

“I haven't seen her,” I replied.

The woman started to her feet. “Aue, it's true. He's killed her!”

Suga,” she called loudly. “Sug-a e.

The girl came on the run.

“Throw me my towel,” I said.

I scrambled to the bank.

They told me Alpheim had quarelled with his native wife and kicked her out. Some of her relatives had come to remonstrate with him. He chased them with the shotgun.

“When was this?” I asked, pulling on my trousers over the damp towel.

“Three days ago. And then he killed the girl.”

“How do you know?” I went on talking through my shirt.

The girl took up the story.

“Yesterday, when I was coming down from the plantation, I heard screaming. The Lady Elsa ran out of the store. The old man was running after her; and he was very angry. He threw something, and she fell down on the ground. Aue, he is a cruel man!”

“Go on,” I said, “go on.”

“And then he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her back into the store just like a fowl. Aue! And then there was more screaming, and a light inside the store. No one has seen the Lady Elsa since.

“To-day my brother and some other boys went to the store to look; they had no money to buy anything, so they pretended that they had a fish to sell. The old man rushed out, and he fired a gun at them. They were so frightened that they dropped the fish and ran away. And that is all I know.”

I knew that this was true, as I had seen the three boys through my glasses from across the bay.

(To be continued.)