All right, my friends, we are about to embark — if you are brave enough — on the strangest serial we have ever shared. And by “strange,” I don’t mean in the soap opera-ish gothic glory of His Father’s Son. No, I mean “strange” in the sense of … well … of … words fail me. You’ll get a taste of … it … in this first installment, and it will grow stronger and stronger through the episodes. In fact, every time you think this story has sunk to the most appalling depths of … it-ness … you’ll find that the next chapter is even worse.
A few points: The author of this story, Hugh J. Cannon, was managing editor of The Improvement Era at the time this was published. He was the elder who had accompanied David O. McKay on his around-the-world tour of the missions in 1921, which is undoubtedly where he picked up many of the details of South Sea island local color that this serial contains. And the serial refers repeatedly to the devastation of a hurricane in Samoa. The details of that devastation appear to be accurate, although they occurred during the cyclone of 1889 rather than a storm of about 1905 as would fit the timeline of this story.
Let us proceed …
From the Improvement Era, 1930-31 –
By Hugh J. Cannon
Since childhood days Lilly Nell Redfield had disliked her name – that is, the first part of it. It reminded her too vividly of Dickens’ pitiful Little Nell, and so much tragedy had come into her early life that she wanted nothing more of that nature, not even in name. That was a potent reason, though by no means the sole one, why she was willing to change it. Mrs. Nathan Everett was much more to her liking. Somehow it seemed to fit her exactly, at least she thought so. Nathan – there was something heroic about men thus designated – the old prophet, for example, who dared rebuke a king for his sins, or Nathan Hale, and – oh, well, she could not remember all the Nathans she knew; but of this she was convinced her Nate was no whit behind the greatest of them all. He was bold enough to confront a king with his crimes, or he would give his life for his country or for her, and his only regret would be that he had but one to give. She, too, would be a Nathan, in fact as well as in name.
The young lady sat before the mirror arranging her hair and gazed admiringly at the reflection of a diamond on the third finger of her left hand. Nathan Everett had placed the ring there the evening before, had kissed her lips, her forehead and dark hair. The memory of his touch thrilled her. Each kiss had been as another diamond making up the crown which betokened her queenship.
“Being engaged really does make one more beautiful,” she thought, and was instantly ashamed of the perfectly excusable vanity. “But,” she continued to herself, “I wonder if a newly engaged girl could possibly dress to meet her lover without feeling intoxicated with the strangeness of her own emotions, and such emotion could not fail to increase beauty.”
Nell walked to the window and looked out. She was trembling with excited and almost overpowering happiness. Twilight was coming on, a strange and unnatural condition; it should have been sunrise and the world flooded with light, for the glory which enveloped her was sufficiently strong, she thought, to illumine a universe. How could it ever be dark?
Her exuberant spirits were subdued by the deepening purple shadows, but this composure was akin to the quiet exhilaration of a summer morning’s dawn, and as she looked at the sparkling gem on her finger it was not easy to say which feeling predominated – exultation or exaltation. Perhaps there was a blending of the two, as there is in the heart of one who has climbed heavenward to the summit of a majestic peak, above all sordid earthly cares and who, overwhelmed by mingled feelings, does not know whether to sit down and cry or kneel down and pray.
The melody she had been trilling, with musical voice, ceased. A helpless feeling, similar to that experienced by a passenger who leaves the earth in an airplane for the first time, came over her at the thought that engagement, followed to its conclusion, meant leaving the parental roof. She had not peered that far into the future, and now the imminence of the separation was startling. This doubtless was the cause of her parents’ depression, which had been something of a puzzle to her during the day, for she knew they loved Nate sincerely and had willingly given consent to the marriage.
Judge and Mrs. Redfield were not Nell’s real parents. They, childless, had found her, a four-year-old orphan tot, in a far-away Samoan cottage, and the adoption which ensued was both mutual and instantaneous. Now the girl’s mind traversed the intervening score of years, and she dimly remembered what an impression the judge’s honest face had made upon her. No wonder a witness on the stand could not lie while looking into those penetrating but kindly eyes; no wonder his paternal air won the hearts of repentant criminals. He loved honesty and truth, detested hypocrisy and pretense, and had the rare gift of inspiring others with these same qualities. Mrs. Redfield’s character and ambition could be defined in the two meaningful words – wife, mother.
Even now Nell could see herself, a shy babe, responding to the gentle advances of the strangers, could remember with what abandon she finally flung herself into the outstretched arms, could feel the happy tears falling on her face and hear the woman’s passionate words, “My baby, that I’ve waited and prayed for so long!”
Recalling again today’s depression, which Mr. and Mrs. Redfield had vainly tried to conceal, the daughter’s mind was directed into another channel. The attitude of Nate’s parents, until recently most cordial, had changed somehow. It was almost imperceptible, but her sensitive soul assured her it was real. Certainly they were as courteous as ever, but their courtesy hardly bordered on cordiality. The difference was one of those things so intangible that only a sixth sense could detect it, and she had repelled any feeling of resentment. It was a trying ordeal, she concluded, for parents to see their first-born leave home, and she determined to make them feel that they were gaining a daughter instead of losing a son.
However, while she finished her toilette, the girl decided she would speak with Nate on the subject, something she had hitherto not done, and ascertain from him the cause of their coolness or obtain the assurance that it was purely imaginary. With this thought in mind, she went downstairs and was in time to see her mother make a hasty dab at tearful eyes with a handkerchief. Nell went swiftly to her.
“Mother, you told me my engagement brought nothing but happiness to you.”
“I spoke the truth, my child. But in that happiness is a strange depression which you can never understand until your own daughter is about to be taken from you.”
“My own daughter? Oh, mother, just to think that I may have a daughter of my very own! But I’ll never be taken very far away from you. We three couldn’t live if we were separated, could we?” And with an arm about their necks she drew the three heads together.
Nathan Everett had, unnoticed, come up to the open door.
“I hope I’m not the subject of the plot you’re hatching, he said.
Nell hastening to welcome and let him in replied merrily, “Indeed you are: mother is half inclined to withdraw her consent to our marriage.”
“It’s hardly that serious, Nate,” Mrs. Redfield interposed, “though we cannot help feeling sad at the thought of having this little girl go from our home, even if she is not to be taken far.”
The young lady at the first opportunity asked Nate why his parents had changed in their attitude toward her. He could not conceal the fact that the question made him uncomfortable, and attempted to evade it; but the girl, made curious and somewhat piqued by his efforts, insisted upon a frank answer.
“I can’t imagine what’s come over Dad,” the young fellow replied dismally. “He’s a perfect enigma on this subject, and so is mother. For months they encouraged me to come here – not that I needed urging – then overnight they became as uncommunicative as the sphinx. A little while ago when father saw the serious turn in our affair, he asked me not to be in a hurry, to look around a little, even to go out with other girls. Of course that was absurd. You know how dearly I love him, although he is pretty stern at times, but he was asking too much. I’m of age and know my own mind. However, when he spoke to me the second time, I did give an unwilling promise not to propose for two months, and kept my word, hard as it was.
“Last night I reminded him of the date and said I’d proposed and been accepted. Probably things had gone wrong in the office, for he was as grouchy as a bear, and mother – well, she was upset too. But do you think I could worm anything out of them? Why, oysters are really talkative compared with my parents. I am sure they both loved you and also know you have done nothing to justify any change of feeling.”
The girl was hurt. “If your parents don’t want me in the family, they need never have me.”
“They’ve got to want you. Your father and dad are old cronies. I wonder if he can’t learn what the trouble is?”
The matter was explained to Mr. Redfield who assured them he would ask for an explanation – even demand it – and that it should be done immediately.
Learning by telephone that Mr. Everett was home and would be glad to see him, the judge left the house. He had hardly done so when Jessie Dean, the dearest of all Nell’s friends, arrived. Jessie excited good humor wherever she went and was a great favorite at the Redfield home. The two girls were so inseparable that an acquaintance had asked Nell how Nate would ever find a chance to propose unless he did it in Jessie’s presence, and some friends professed to believe it was Jessie who would ultimately receive the proposal. Today, as Nell looked at her friend, she said:
“Jessie, you are so radiant that a stranger would surely take you for the bride-to-be.”
“Well, you had better be careful, or I may cut you out and be the bride after all.”
Several hours later, and after the visitors had left, Mr. Redfield returned home. All the elasticity was gone from his step, and he seemed to have become in one evening an old and broken man. His wife and daughter were shocked at the ashy face and insisted on knowing the cause.
“I had hoped to wait until tomorrow to tell a pitiful story,” he said, “but distressing as it is I must relate it or have someone less sympathetic do it for me.
“It concerns your parents, Lilly Nell, the parents who lie buried in Samoa and whom you remember but indistinctly. Some of that which I shall say, you have already heard many times; some of it will be shockingly new.
“Your father, John Z. Terry, was as dear to me as Jessie Dean is to you. He was instinctively and always a gentleman, as conscientious a man as I ever knew, and withal a delightful friend. And Jack was a handsome fellow, too, wasn’t he, mother? You come honestly by your good looks, child. He had as captivating a manner with the girls as you have with men, but there was nothing he abhorred quite so much as a male flirt, and his efforts to dodge designing mothers and acquiescent daughters amused us greatly.
“He had always wanted to travel, so when one particular woman with a marriageable daughter pursued him so determinedly he packed up and left the country, visiting different lands and winding up in the South Sea Islands. From there he wrote and persuaded me to join with him in a number of investments which subsequently proved very profitable.
“We had interests in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa and his time was divided among the various groups, though for the most part his home was in Apia, where you were born, daughter, and where your parents were killed in the terrible hurricane.
“Many people hereabouts knew John Terry. His family was an old and honored one, and his own character was above reproach, so that from your father’s side you have every reason to be proud of the blood which is in your veins. But — ”
Mr. Redfield floundered as helplessly as an unwilling witness under his severe cross-examination. Evidently the task confronting him was not an easy one. The quick-witted girl caught a faint glimmer of what was to be revealed.
“But you mean that I haven’t the same reason to be proud of my mother? Is that what you are trying to say?”
Her frightened and penetrating gaze was disconcerting. As much to avoid it as for any other reason, he asked her to sit on his knee as she had done from babyhood. More than one serious trouble had been banished entirely or at least soothed to forgetfulness by the tenderness of this big-hearted man, the only father she had really known.
“Yes, that is what I am trying to say, my child, and I find it very hard to do. I heard something of this woman, your mother, and wrote Jack urging him to be careful. Though he was not a good correspondent and seldom wrote, he did answer that letter and assured me there was no occasion for anxiety. However, it appears now that he ultimately yielded to temptation and made her his wife.”
“Then my parents were properly married?”
“Oh, certainly, yes, indeed!” Mr. Redfield hastened to assure her. “No question of that kind has ever been raised.” Again the judge hesitated.
“Then was my mother not a good woman?”
That he could give satisfactory answer to this question afforded temporary relief to the troubled man. But Nell insisted that he proceed.
“You know how proud the Everetts have always been of their family blood, and how carefully they have enquired into the ancestry of those who might become one with them in marriage. You will recall how your own case was looked into and that I was able to show Mr. Everett the letter which your father wrote me at the time of his marriage, informing me that he was marrying a splendid girl of whom we would all be proud and whose culture and education were comparable in every respect with the Terrys. Everett was fully satisfied, but later on he accidentally met a merchant from Apia who hinted at something which was most disquieting.
“Although I was so incensed this evening when I heard of his action that we almost came to blows, I must confess now Mr. Everett did the consistent and proper thing, the thing that any thoughtful father would do, engaged a discreet man to go to the Islands to investigate.”
“And he found?” The question came huskily from tense lips.
“He found confirmation of the statement made by the merchant, that your mother was part Fijian.”
The girl’s face was very white, but of the three she was the most calm. She made a pitiful attempt to comfort Mr. Redfield and his wife. Then tremblingly she put a question:
“To what race do the Fijians belong?”
“To the Melanesian or Negroid race.”
It was in Nell’s own room that the full force of the calamitous news broke upon her. She was part negro. That the horror of it did not kill her instantly was cause for surprise to her overwhelmed mind. Reared in an aristocratic southern family, slave-holders for generations prior to the Civil War, she had from childhood imbibed ideas concerning the colored race which made this information peculiarly abhorrent. Nate had often called her his brunette lily, and she shuddered at thought of the origin of her complexion.
Thinking of Nate made the present condition seem unbearable, and she flung herself on the bed in a fit of uncontrollable grief. Nate already knew the loathsome truth or would know immediately. Of course the Everetts would object to the marriage. They could have had no other purpose in sending a spy to the Islands; and she herself must forestall them by declining to continue the engagement, or suffer the degradation of having them reject her. The intense pride of her soul – a pride possessed by inheritance and cultivation – flamed up bitterly, resentfully, at the alternative. This explained the cause of their coolness, and as she considered it further, the temptation swept over her still to claim their son. Even possessed of this knowledge, she was sure he would not willingly relinquish her, and her first impulse was that she would marry him in spite of all. They could go away among strangers; the property left by Mr. Terry was ample for their needs, and Nate, too, was well equipped by training to provide for them. The idea was seized as a drowning man grasps a bit of driftwood. For a time she clung desperately to it.
“But what then?” she finally asked herself. “Marry him and live a lie all my life, to my associates, to my children whom I have sung to sleep, in imagination, ever since my own babyhood? What kind of a Nathan would I be? When my father thought me white he would rather have seen me in my shroud than married to someone tainted as I am. His white southern blood has always revolted at such unions. He would come to hate me as I would hate myself. If I alone of all the world knew this secret, I could not degrade the man I love by marrying him.”
When they felt they could do so wisely, Mr. and Mrs. Redfield came to her room, but were able to offer little comfort. Indeed, they were hardly less disturbed than was the girl. Exhaustion alone brought a measure of tranquility to the troubled hearts. With calmness a faint hope arose in the afflicted girl’s mind. Eagerly she put the question:
“Is it possible that this detective is either mistaken or has made up this story?”
“How I wish such a hope could be justified! I entertained it myself at first, but Mr. Gray, whom I have known by reputation for a long time, is a very high class man. He would not stoop to falsehood and there would be no motive for it, because Mr. Everett was sincerely anxious to disprove the rumor which had come to him; and as for a mistake, Gray’s training is a guaranty against that. In addition, he has sworn statements from private individuals as well as from officials in Samoa that John Terry’s wife was a –”
“A negress!” finished Nell with a shudder.
‘Had Fijian blood in her veins,” corrected Mr. Redfield.
“But how do you explain my father’s letter to you on the subject? Can you believe he lied to his best friend?”
“No, I can not! John Terry was so honest that if he had declared his wife was wholly white his bare statement would stand with me against a roomful of affidavits from unknown people, but I have re-read that particular letter carefully and unfortunately he does not say though he evidently intended to convey the idea, that no colored blood was in her veins. No word of his actually contradicts Gray’s report. Your mother was well educated and talented, her father traced his ancestry to the British nobility, and three-quarters of her mother’s blood runs back to the best families, but the other quarter was Fijian.”
At the girl’s request, Judge Redfield told again all he knew of her parents’ history after they met each other. Word had come to him from Fiji that Nelly Alder, with just enough Fijian blood in her veins to make her a most captivating creature, following the example of her American sisters, had fallen deeply in love with Terry who had avoided her for a time and to escape had finally gone to Tonga, where they had business interests. He had subsequently married there, and the Redfields were always of the opinion it was to another woman, but Mr. Gray’s affidavits showed that the Fijian woman was so desperately in love that she had followed him to Tonga. Gray was not able to land in that place owing to an epidemic of measles, a disease peculiarly fatal to the Islanders, but had written for information and had received an official statement from the prime minister that John Z. Terry and Nelly Alder were married there by the Rev. Josiah Hunt. In his possession also were documents from residents of Samoa and Fiji that Nelly Alder, wife of Mr. Terry, was an eighth Fijian. A reputable merchant of that place who had done business with Mr. Alder in Suva, knew the family well, and Nelly’s mother showed unmistakable signs of colored blood.
“The tropical climate never did agree with Jack,” continued the judge. “His health broke down and fearing that the end was approaching he disposed of most of our holdings and sent for me to come down to help close up our affairs. He urged haste, as there were some important explanations to make. Mother and I both went, but before reaching Apia the destructive hurricane had occurred. The building in which your parents lived collapsed, as did most others in the town. Your mother was killed outright and your father lived only long enough feebly to entreat friends to have us take you home and raise you as our own daughter.
“They had been buried several days when we arrived. We erected stones over their graves and made disposition of our few remaining interests.”
“You overlook the most important thing,” Mrs. Redfield interposed. “While mourning sincerely for our friend, we were at the same time thanking God for hearing our prayers and giving to us a child.”
“And he alone knows how completely you have fulfilled the duties of parents.” The girl’s tone indicated that she, too, comprehended the extent of their fidelity. Then she continued, “What did you learn of my own mother?”
“You must remember that the hurricane wrought frightful havoc with the country and people, and everything was in confusion. We learned nothing whatever of your mother except that the reports sent us of her talents and beauty were confirmed. It was evident the natives loved her sincerely. That she idolized you, you already know, having been told from infancy of how, amid the chaos of that fatal storm, she shielded your tiny body with her own, thereby saving your life at the cost of hers.”
“And until tonight I have loved the life she saved and loved her for saving it, but now I feel that she was most cruel. Oh, why wasn’t I buried with them?”
Judge Redfield took the overwrought girl in his arms. “There, there, my sweet little daughter, don’t take it so to heart.”
“But that’s one of the troubles! I have been your little daughter so long and it has brought such joy and sweetness into my life. Now that is all past and I can never call you father and mother again.”
“Of course you can. Mother and I have talked it all over and there’s not to be the slightest change in our relations. Isn’t that so, mother?”
Mrs. Redfield answered by kissing the girl’s wet cheeks and mingling her own tears with her daughter’s.
“Of course you would say that, I didn’t expect anything else. But I’m not likely to forget now the horror with which you have both looked upon people whose blood was tainted as mine is. And there’s Nate.” With difficulty she restrained a fresh outburst of grief. “If I should ask your advice, you couldn’t say for me to marry him, consequently there’s only one thing to be done. I must go away from here, from you, the only parents I have really known, from Nate; must go back to the Islands, to weep over the grave of my parents and there, with whatever courage and strength I can muster, spend my life working for the education and betterment of the people among whom I was born, until I die of a broken heart.”
A great sob coming from the sensitive heart of the man shook his frame; a cry such as comes only from one filled with mother love escaped his wife.
“No, no, Lilly Nell!” Mrs. Redfield moaned. “You are my daughter, my own sweet child, given to me by heaven in answer to a childless woman’s prayers. You can not leave us. It would kill us both.”
“Heaven was merciful when it sent me here, to such a kind father and tender mother, and oh, how I’ve learned to love you, but you can see that I can’t remain. My friends will know of this, and even if they do not, you have taught me honesty until mingling with them as I have always done would be a living lie, worse for us all than death, worse even than to live alone in a foreign land.”
The grief and excitement of the evening had exhausted the girl, and Mrs. Redfield insisted on putting her to bed.
“I’ll leave your door open, dear, so that if you need me you can call.”
A moment later the young lady heard the door bell ring and then Nate’s voice demanding of her father,
“Where’s Nell? I must see her.”
“She is indisposed and has retired. You know it is past midnight.”
“Judge Redfield, I want your help in this matter. You’ll not be so absurd and unreasonable, I know, as father and mother are. I don’t give a tinker’s dam for a sixteenth of Fijian blood! I’d marry her if she were a mulatto!”
“No, you wouldn’t, my boy. You would be doing yourself, Nell and the world a wrong.” The men went into the library, closed the door, and the listener heard no more.