I SAW that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing. I should say I had been for years on a low island near the line, living for the most part solitary among natives. Here was a fresh experience: even the tongue would be quite strange to me; and the look of these woods and mountains, and the rare smell of them, renewed my blood.
The captain blew out the binnacle lamp.
“There!” said he, “there goes a bit of smoke, Mr. Wiltshire, behind the break of the reef. That’s Falesa, where your station is, the last village to the east; nobody lives to windward — I don’t know why. Take my glass, and you can make the houses out.”
I took the glass; and the shores leaped nearer, and I saw the tangle of the woods and the breach of the surf, and the brown roofs and the black insides of houses peeped among the trees.
“Do you catch a bit of white there to the east’ard?” the captain continued. “That’s your house. Coral built, stands high, verandah you could walk on three abreast; best station in the South Pacific. When old Adams saw it, he took and shook me by the hand. ‘I’ve dropped into a soft thing here,’ says he. — ‘So you have,’ says I, ‘and time too!’ Poor Johnny! I never saw him again but the once, and then he had changed his tune — couldn’t get on with the natives, or the whites, or something; and the next time we came round there he was dead and buried. I took and put up a bit of a stick to him: ‘John Adams, OBIT eighteen and sixty-eight. Go thou and do likewise.’ I missed that man. I never could see much harm in Johnny.”
“What did he die of?” I inquired.
“Some kind of sickness,” says the captain. “It appears it took him sudden. Seems he got up in the night, and filled up on Pain-Killer and Kennedy’s Discovery. No go: he was booked beyond Kennedy. Then he had tried to open a case of gin. No go again: not strong enough. Then he must have turned to and run out on the verandah, and capsized over the rail. When they found him, the next day, he was clean crazy — carried on all the time about somebody watering his copra. Poor John!”
“Was it thought to be the island?” I asked.
“Well, it was thought to be the island, or the trouble, or something,” he replied. “I never could hear but what it was a healthy place. Our last man, Vigours, never turned a hair. He left because of the beach — said he was afraid of Black Jack and Case and Whistling Jimmie, who was still alive at the time, but got drowned soon afterward when drunk. As for old Captain Randall, he’s been here any time since eighteen-forty, forty-five. I never could see much harm in Billy, nor much change. Seems as if he might live to be Old Kafoozleum. No, I guess it’s healthy.”
“There’s a boat coming now,” said I. “She’s right in the pass; looks to be a sixteen-foot whale; two white men in the stern sheets.”
“That’s the boat that drowned Whistling Jimmie!” cried the Captain; “let’s see the glass. Yes, that’s Case, sure enough, and the darkie. They’ve got a gallows bad reputation, but you know what a place the beach is for talking. My belief, that Whistling Jimmie was the worst of the trouble; and he’s gone to glory, you see. What’ll you bet they ain’t after gin? Lay you five to two they take six cases.”
When these two traders came aboard I was pleased with the looks of them at once, or, rather, with the looks of both, and the speech of one. I was sick for white neighbours after my four years at the line, which I always counted years of prison; getting tabooed, and going down to the Speak House to see and get it taken off; buying gin and going on a break, and then repenting; sitting in the house at night with the lamp for company; or walking on the beach and wondering what kind of a fool to call myself for being where I was. There were no other whites upon my island, and when I sailed to the next, rough customers made the most of the society. Now to see these two when they came aboard was a pleasure. One was a negro, to be sure; but they were both rigged out smart in striped pyjamas and straw hats, and Case would have passed muster in a city. He was yellow and smallish, had a hawk’s nose to his face, pale eyes, and his beard trimmed with scissors. No man knew his country, beyond he was of English speech; and it was clear he came of a good family and was splendidly educated. He was accomplished too; played the accordion first-rate; and give him a piece of string or a cork or a pack of cards, and he could show you tricks equal to any professional. He could speak, when he chose, fit for a drawing-room; and when he chose he could blaspheme worse than a Yankee boatswain, and talk smart to sicken a Kanaka. The way he thought would pay best at the moment, that was Case’s way, and it always seemed to come natural, and like as if he was born to it. He had the courage of a lion and the cunning of a rat; and if he’s not in hell to-day, there’s no such place. I know but one good point to the man: that he was fond of his wife, and kind to her. She was a Samoa woman, and dyed her hair red, Samoa style; and when he came to die (as I have to tell of) they found one strange thing - that he had made a will, like a Christian, and the widow got the lot: all his, they said, and all Black Jack’s, and the most of Billy Randall’s in the bargain, for it was Case that kept the books. So she went off home in the schooner MANU’A, and does the lady to this day in her own place.
But of all this on that first morning I knew no more than a fly. Case used me like a gentleman and like a friend, made me welcome to Falesa, and put his services at my disposal, which was the more helpful from my ignorance of the native. All the better part of the day we sat drinking better acquaintance in the cabin, and I never heard a man talk more to the point. There was no smarter trader, and none dodgier, in the islands. I thought Falesa seemed to be the right kind of a place; and the more I drank the lighter my heart. Our last trader had fled the place at half an hour’s notice, taking a chance passage in a labour ship from up west. The captain, when he came, had found the station closed, the keys left with the native pastor, and a letter from the runaway, confessing he was fairly frightened of his life. Since then the firm had not been represented, and of course there was no cargo. The wind, besides, was fair, the captain hoped he could make his next island by dawn, with a good tide, and the business of landing my trade was gone about lively. There was no call for me to fool with it, Case said; nobody would touch my things, everyone was honest in Falesa, only about chickens or an odd knife or an odd stick of tobacco; and the best I could do was to sit quiet till the vessel left, then come straight to his house, see old Captain Randall, the father of the beach, take pot-luck, and go home to sleep when it got dark. So it was high noon, and the schooner was under way before I set my foot on shore at Falesa.
I had a glass or two on board; I was just off a long cruise, and the ground heaved under me like a ship’s deck. The world was like all new painted; my foot went along to music; Falesa might have been Fiddler’s Green, if there is such a place, and more’s the pity if there isn’t! It was good to foot the grass, to look aloft at the green mountains, to see the men with their green wreaths and the women in their bright dresses, red and blue. On we went, in the strong sun and the cool shadow, liking both; and all the children in the town came trotting after with their shaven heads and their brown bodies, and raising a thin kind of a cheer in our wake, like crowing poultry.
“By-the-bye,” says Case, “we must get you a wife.”
“That’s so,” said I; “I had forgotten.”
There was a crowd of girls about us, and I pulled myself up and looked among them like a Bashaw. They were all dressed out for the sake of the ship being in; and the women of Falesa are a handsome lot to see. If they have a fault, they are a trifle broad in the beam; and I was just thinking so when Case touched me.
“That’s pretty,” says he.
I saw one coming on the other side alone. She had been fishing; all she wore was a chemise, and it was wetted through. She was young and very slender for an island maid, with a long face, a high forehead, and a shy, strange, blindish look, between a cat’s and a baby’s.
“Who’s she?” said I. “She’ll do.”
“That’s Uma,” said Case, and he called her up and spoke to her in the native. I didn’t know what he said; but when he was in the midst she looked up at me quick and timid, like a child dodging a blow, then down again, and presently smiled. She had a wide mouth, the lips and the chin cut like any statue’s; and the smile came out for a moment and was gone. Then she stood with her head bent, and heard Case to an end, spoke back in the pretty Polynesian voice, looking him full in the face, heard him again in answer, and then with an obeisance started off. I had just a share of the bow, but never another shot of her eye, and there was no more word of smiling.
“I guess it’s all right,” said Case. “I guess you can have her. I’ll make it square with the old lady. You can have your pick of the lot for a plug of tobacco,” he added, sneering.
I suppose it was the smile stuck in my memory, for I spoke back sharp. “She doesn’t look that sort,” I cried.
“I don’t know that she is,” said Case. “I believe she’s as right as the mail. Keeps to herself, don’t go round with the gang, and that. O no, don’t you misunderstand me — Uma’s on the square.” He spoke eager, I thought, and that surprised and pleased me. “Indeed,” he went on, “I shouldn’t make so sure of getting her, only she cottoned to the cut of your jib. All you have to do is to keep dark and let me work the mother my own way; and I’ll bring the girl round to the captain’s for the marriage.”
I didn’t care for the word marriage, and I said so.
“Oh, there’s nothing to hurt in the marriage,” says he. “Black Jack’s the chaplain.”
By this time we had come in view of the house of these three white men; for a negro is counted a white man, and so is a Chinese! a strange idea, but common in the islands. It was a board house with a strip of rickety verandah. The store was to the front, with a counter, scales, and the poorest possible display of trade: a case or two of tinned meats; a barrel of hard bread; a few bolts of cotton stuff, not to be compared with mine; the only thing well represented being the contraband, firearms and liquor. “If these are my only rivals,” thinks I, “I should do well in Falesa.” Indeed, there was only the one way they could touch me, and that was with the guns and drink.
In the back room was old Captain Randall, squatting on the floor native fashion, fat and pale, naked to the waist, grey as a badger, and his eyes set with drink. His body was covered with grey hair and crawled over by flies; one was in the corner of his eye — he never heeded; and the mosquitoes hummed about the man like bees. Any clean-minded man would have had the creature out at once and buried him; and to see him, and think he was seventy, and remember he had once commanded a ship, and come ashore in his smart togs, and talked big in bars and consulates, and sat in club verandahs, turned me sick and sober.
He tried to get up when I came in, but that was hopeless; so he reached me a hand instead, and stumbled out some salutation.
“Papa’s 1 pretty full this morning,” observed Case. “We’ve had an epidemic here; and Captain Randall takes gin for a prophylactic - don’t you, Papa?”
1 Please pronounce PAPPA throughout.
“Never took such a thing in my life!” cried the captain indignantly. “Take gin for my health’s sake, Mr. Wha’s-ever-your- name — ‘s a precautionary measure.”
“That’s all right, Papa,” said Case. “But you’ll have to brace up. There’s going to be a marriage — Mr. Wiltshire here is going to get spliced.”
The old man asked to whom.
“To Uma,” said Case.
“Uma!” cried the captain. “Wha’s he want Uma for? ‘s he come here for his health, anyway? Wha’ ‘n hell’s he want Uma for?”
“Dry up, Papa,” said Case. “‘Tain’t you that’s to marry her. I guess you’re not her godfather and godmother. I guess Mr. Wiltshire’s going to please himself.”
With that he made an excuse to me that he must move about the marriage, and left me alone with the poor wretch that was his partner and (to speak truth) his gull. Trade and station belonged both to Randall; Case and the negro were parasites; they crawled and fed upon him like the flies, he none the wiser. Indeed, I have no harm to say of Billy Randall beyond the fact that my gorge rose at him, and the time I now passed in his company was like a nightmare.
The room was stifling hot and full of flies; for the house was dirty and low and small, and stood in a bad place, behind the village, in the borders of the bush, and sheltered from the trade. The three men’s beds were on the floor, and a litter of pans and dishes. There was no standing furniture; Randall, when he was violent, tearing it to laths. There I sat and had a meal which was served us by Case’s wife; and there I was entertained all day by that remains of man, his tongue stumbling among low old jokes and long old stories, and his own wheezy laughter always ready, so that he had no sense of my depression. He was nipping gin all the while. Sometimes he fell asleep, and awoke again, whimpering and shivering, and every now and again he would ask me why I wanted to marry Uma. “My friend,” I was telling myself all day, “you must not come to be an old gentleman like this.”
It might be four in the afternoon, perhaps, when the back door was thrust slowly open, and a strange old native woman crawled into the house almost on her belly. She was swathed in black stuff to her heels; her hair was grey in swatches; her face was tattooed, which was not the practice in that island; her eyes big and bright and crazy. These she fixed upon me with a rapt expression that I saw to be part acting. She said no plain word, but smacked and mumbled with her lips, and hummed aloud, like a child over its Christmas pudding. She came straight across the house, heading for me, and, as soon as she was alongside, caught up my hand and purred and crooned over it like a great cat. From this she slipped into a kind of song.
“Who the devil’s this?” cried I, for the thing startled me.
“It’s Fa’avao,” says Randall; and I saw he had hitched along the floor into the farthest corner.
“You ain’t afraid of her?” I cried.
“Me ‘fraid!” cried the captain. “My dear friend, I defy her! I don’t let her put her foot in here, only I suppose ‘s different to- day, for the marriage. ‘s Uma’s mother.”
“Well, suppose it is; what’s she carrying on about?” I asked, more irritated, perhaps more frightened, than I cared to show; and the captain told me she was making up a quantity of poetry in my praise because I was to marry Uma. “All right, old lady,” says I, with rather a failure of a laugh, “anything to oblige. But when you’re done with my hand, you might let me know.”
She did as though she understood; the song rose into a cry, and stopped; the woman crouched out of the house the same way that she came in, and must have plunged straight into the bush, for when I followed her to the door she had already vanished.
“These are rum manners,” said I.
“‘s a rum crowd,” said the captain, and, to my surprise, he made the sign of the cross on his bare bosom.
“Hillo!” says I, “are you a Papist?”
He repudiated the idea with contempt. “Hard-shell Baptis’,” said he. “But, my dear friend, the Papists got some good ideas too; and tha’ ‘s one of ‘em. You take my advice, and whenever you come across Uma or Fa’avao or Vigours, or any of that crowd, you take a leaf out o’ the priests, and do what I do. Savvy?” says he, repeated the sign, and winked his dim eye at me. “No, SIR!” he broke out again, “no Papists here!” and for a long time entertained me with his religious opinions.
I must have been taken with Uma from the first, or I should certainly have fled from that house, and got into the clean air, and the clean sea, or some convenient river — though, it’s true, I was committed to Case; and, besides, I could never have held my head up in that island if I had run from a girl upon my wedding- night.
The sun was down, the sky all on fire, and the lamp had been some time lighted, when Case came back with Uma and the negro. She was dressed and scented; her kilt was of fine tapa, looking richer in the folds than any silk; her bust, which was of the colour of dark honey, she wore bare only for some half a dozen necklaces of seeds and flowers; and behind her ears and in her hair she had the scarlet flowers of the hibiscus. She showed the best bearing for a bride conceivable, serious and still; and I thought shame to stand up with her in that mean house and before that grinning negro. I thought shame, I say; for the mountebank was dressed with a big paper collar, the book he made believe to read from was an odd volume of a novel, and the words of his service not fit to be set down. My conscience smote me when we joined hands; and when she got her certificate I was tempted to throw up the bargain and confess. Here is the document. It was Case that wrote it, signatures and all, in a leaf out of the ledger:-
This is to certify that Uma, daughter of Fa’avao of Falesa, Island of — is illegally married to Mr. John Wiltshire for one week, and Mr. John Wiltshire is at liberty to send her to hell when he pleases.
JOHN BLACKAMOAR. Chaplain to the hulks.
Extracted from the Register by William T. Randall, Master Mariner.
A nice paper to put in a girl’s hand and see her hide away like gold. A man might easily feel cheap for less. But it was the practice in these parts, and (as I told myself) not the least the fault of us white men, but of the missionaries. If they had let the natives be, I had never needed this deception, but taken all the wives I wished, and left them when I pleased, with a clear conscience.
The more ashamed I was, the more hurry I was in to be gone; and our desires thus jumping together, I made the less remark of a change in the traders. Case had been all eagerness to keep me; now, as though he had attained a purpose, he seemed all eagerness to have me go. Uma, he said, could show me to my house, and the three bade us farewell indoors.
The night was nearly come; the village smelt of trees and flowers and the sea and bread-fruit-cooking; there came a fine roll of sea from the reef, and from a distance, among the woods and houses, many pretty sounds of men and children. It did me good to breathe free air; it did me good to be done with the captain and see, instead, the creature at my side. I felt for all the world as though she were some girl at home in the Old Country, and, forgetting myself for the minute, took her hand to walk with. Her fingers nestled into mine, I heard her breathe deep and quick, and all at once she caught my hand to her face and pressed it there. “You good!” she cried, and ran ahead of me, and stopped and looked back and smiled, and ran ahead of me again, thus guiding me through the edge of the bush, and by a quiet way to my own house.
The truth is, Case had done the courting for me in style — told her I was mad to have her, and cared nothing for the consequence; and the poor soul, knowing that which I was still ignorant of, believed it, every word, and had her head nigh turned with vanity and gratitude. Now, of all this I had no guess; I was one of those most opposed to any nonsense about native women, having seen so many whites eaten up by their wives’ relatives, and made fools of in the bargain; and I told myself I must make a stand at once, and bring her to her bearings. But she looked so quaint and pretty as she ran away and then awaited me, and the thing was done so like a child or a kind dog, that the best I could do was just to follow her whenever she went on, to listen for the fall of her bare feet, and to watch in the dusk for the shining of her body. And there was another thought came in my head. She played kitten with me now when we were alone; but in the house she had carried it the way a countess might, so proud and humble. And what with her dress — for all there was so little of it, and that native enough — what with her fine tapa and fine scents, and her red flowers and seeds, that were quite as bright as jewels, only larger — it came over me she was a kind of countess really, dressed to hear great singers at a concert, and no even mate for a poor trader like myself.
She was the first in the house; and while I was still without I saw a match flash and the lamplight kindle in the windows. The station was a wonderful fine place, coral built, with quite a wide verandah, and the main room high and wide. My chests and cases had been piled in, and made rather of a mess; and there, in the thick of the confusion, stood Uma by the table, awaiting me. Her shadow went all the way up behind her into the hollow of the iron roof; she stood against it bright, the lamplight shining on her skin. I stopped in the door, and she looked at me, not speaking, with eyes that were eager and yet daunted; then she touched herself on the bosom.
“Me — your wifie,” she said. It had never taken me like that before; but the want of her took and shook all through me, like the wind in the luff of a sail.
I could not speak if I had wanted; and if I could, I would not. I was ashamed to be so much moved about a native, ashamed of the marriage too, and the certificate she had treasured in her kilt; and I turned aside and made believe to rummage among my cases. The first thing I lighted on was a case of gin, the only one that I had brought; and, partly for the girl’s sake, and partly for horror of the recollections of old Randall, took a sudden resolve. I prized the lid off. One by one I drew the bottles with a pocket corkscrew, and sent Uma out to pour the stuff from the verandah.
She came back after the last, and looked at me puzzled like.
“No good,” said I, for I was now a little better master of my tongue. “Man he drink, he no good.”
She agreed with this, but kept considering. “Why you bring him?” she asked presently. “Suppose you no want drink, you no bring him, I think.”
“That’s all right,” said I. “One time I want drink too much; now no want. You see, I no savvy I get one little wifie. Suppose I drink gin, my little wifie he ‘fraid.”
To speak to her kindly was about more than I was fit for; I had made my vow I would never let on to weakness with a native, and I had nothing for it but to stop.
She stood looking gravely down at me where I sat by the open case. “I think you good man,” she said. And suddenly she had fallen before me on the floor. “I belong you all-e-same pig!” she cried.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00