I CAME on the verandah just before the sun rose on the morrow. My house was the last on the east; there was a cape of woods and cliffs behind that hid the sunrise. To the west, a swift cold river ran down, and beyond was the green of the village, dotted with cocoa-palms and breadfruits and houses. The shutters were some of them down and some open; I saw the mosquito bars still stretched, with shadows of people new-awakened sitting up inside; and all over the green others were stalking silent, wrapped in their many-coloured sleeping clothes like Bedouins in Bible pictures. It was mortal still and solemn and chilly, and the light of the dawn on the lagoon was like the shining of a fire.
But the thing that troubled me was nearer hand. Some dozen young men and children made a piece of a half-circle, flanking my house: the river divided them, some were on the near side, some on the far, and one on a boulder in the midst; and they all sat silent, wrapped in their sheets, and stared at me and my house as straight as pointer dogs. I thought it strange as I went out. When I had bathed and come back again, and found them all there, and two or three more along with them, I thought it stranger still. What could they see to gaze at in my house, I wondered, and went in.
But the thought of these starers stuck in my mind, and presently I came out again. The sun was now up, but it was still behind the cape of woods. Say a quarter of an hour had come and gone. The crowd was greatly increased, the far bank of the river was lined for quite a way — perhaps thirty grown folk, and of children twice as many, some standing, some squatted on the ground, and all staring at my house. I have seen a house in a South Sea village thus surrounded, but then a trader was thrashing his wife inside, and she singing out. Here was nothing: the stove was alight, the smoke going up in a Christian manner; all was shipshape and Bristol fashion. To be sure, there was a stranger come, but they had a chance to see that stranger yesterday, and took it quiet enough. What ailed them now? I leaned my arms on the rail and stared back. Devil a wink they had in them! Now and then I could see the children chatter, but they spoke so low not even the hum of their speaking came my length. The rest were like graven images: they stared at me, dumb and sorrowful, with their bright eyes; and it came upon me things would look not much different if I were on the platform of the gallows, and these good folk had come to see me hanged.
I felt I was getting daunted, and began to be afraid I looked it, which would never do. Up I stood, made believe to stretch myself, came down the verandah stair, and strolled towards the river. There went a short buzz from one to the other, like what you hear in theatres when the curtain goes up; and some of the nearest gave back the matter of a pace. I saw a girl lay one hand on a young man and make a gesture upward with the other; at the same time she said something in the native with a gasping voice. Three little boys sat beside my path, where, I must pass within three feet of them. Wrapped in their sheets, with their shaved heads and bits of top-knots, and queer faces, they looked like figures on a chimney- piece. Awhile they sat their ground, solemn as judges. I came up hand over fist, doing my five knots, like a man that meant business; and I thought I saw a sort of a wink and gulp in the three faces. Then one jumped up (he was the farthest off) and ran for his mammy. The other two, trying to follow suit, got foul, came to ground together bawling, wriggled right out of their sheets mother-naked, and in a moment there were all three of them scampering for their lives and singing out like pigs. The natives, who would never let a joke slip, even at a burial, laughed and let up, as short as a dog’s bark.
They say it scares a man to be alone. No such thing. What scares him in the dark or the high bush is that he can’t make sure, and there might be an army at his elbow. What scares him worst is to be right in the midst of a crowd, and have no guess of what they’re driving at. When that laugh stopped, I stopped too. The boys had not yet made their offing, they were still on the full stretch going the one way, when I had already gone about ship and was sheering off the other. Like a fool I had come out, doing my five knots; like a fool I went back again. It must have been the funniest thing to see, and what knocked me silly, this time no one laughed; only one old woman gave a kind of pious moan, the way you have heard Dissenters in their chapels at the sermon.
“I never saw such fools of Kanakas as your people here,” I said once to Uma, glancing out of the window at the starers.
“Savvy nothing,” says Uma, with a kind of disgusted air that she was good at.
And that was all the talk we had upon the matter, for I was put out, and Uma took the thing so much as a matter of course that I was fairly ashamed.
All day, off and on, now fewer and now more, the fools sat about the west end of my house and across the river, waiting for the show, whatever that was — fire to come down from heaven, I suppose, and consume me, bones and baggage. But by evening, like real islanders, they had wearied of the business, and got away, and had a dance instead in the big house of the village, where I heard them singing and clapping hands till, maybe, ten at night, and the next day it seemed they had forgotten I existed. If fire had come down from heaven or the earth opened and swallowed me, there would have been nobody to see the sport or take the lesson, or whatever you like to call it. But I was to find they hadn’t forgot either, and kept an eye lifting for phenomena over my way.
I was hard at it both these days getting my trade in order and taking stock of what Vigours had left. This was a job that made me pretty sick, and kept me from thinking on much else. Ben had taken stock the trip before — I knew I could trust Ben — but it was plain somebody had been making free in the meantime. I found I was out by what might easily cover six months’ salary and profit, and I could have kicked myself all round the village to have been such a blamed ass, sitting boozing with that Case instead of attending to my own affairs and taking stock.
However, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. It was done now, and couldn’t be undone. All I could do was to get what was left of it, and my new stuff (my own choice) in order, to go round and get after the rats and cockroaches, and to fix up that store regular Sydney style. A fine show I made of it; and the third morning when I had lit my pipe and stood in the door-way and looked in, and turned and looked far up the mountain and saw the cocoanuts waving and posted up the tons of copra, and over the village green and saw the island dandies and reckoned up the yards of print they wanted for their kilts and dresses, I felt as if I was in the right place to make a fortune, and go home again and start a public-house. There was I, sitting in that verandah, in as handsome a piece of scenery as you could find, a splendid sun, and a fine fresh healthy trade that stirred up a man’s blood like sea-bathing; and the whole thing was clean gone from me, and I was dreaming England, which is, after all, a nasty, cold, muddy hole, with not enough light to see to read by; and dreaming the looks of my public, by a cant of a broad high-road like an avenue, and with the sign on a green tree.
So much for the morning, but the day passed and the devil anyone looked near me, and from all I knew of natives in other islands I thought this strange. People laughed a little at our firm and their fine stations, and at this station of Falesa in particular; all the copra in the district wouldn’t pay for it (I had heard them say) in fifty years, which I supposed was an exaggeration. But when the day went, and no business came at all, I began to get downhearted; and, about three in the afternoon, I went out for a stroll to cheer me up. On the green I saw a white man coming with a cassock on, by which and by the face of him I knew he was a priest. He was a good-natured old soul to look at, gone a little grizzled, and so dirty you could have written with him on a piece of paper.
“Good day, sir,” said I.
He answered me eagerly in native.
“Don’t you speak any English?” said I.
“French,” says he.
“Well,” said I, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything there.”
He tried me awhile in the French, and then again in native, which he seemed to think was the best chance. I made out he was after more than passing the time of day with me, but had something to communicate, and I listened the harder. I heard the names of Adams and Case and of Randall — Randall the oftenest — and the word “poison,” or something like it, and a native word that he said very often. I went home, repeating it to myself.
“What does fussy-ocky mean?” I asked of Uma, for that was as near as I could come to it.
“Make dead,” said she.
“The devil it does!” says I. “Did ever you hear that Case had poisoned Johnnie Adams?”
“Every man he savvy that,” says Uma, scornful-like. “Give him white sand — bad sand. He got the bottle still. Suppose he give you gin, you no take him.”
Now I had heard much the same sort of story in other islands, and the same white powder always to the front, which made me think the less of it. For all that, I went over to Randall’s place to see what I could pick up, and found Case on the doorstep, cleaning a gun.
“Good shooting here?” says I.
“A 1,” says he. “The bush is full of all kinds of birds. I wish copra was as plenty,” says he — I thought, slyly — “but there don’t seem anything doing.”
I could see Black Jack in the store, serving a customer.
“That looks like business, though,” said I.
“That’s the first sale we’ve made in three weeks,” said he.
“You don’t tell me?” says I. “Three weeks? Well, well.”
“If you don’t believe me,” he cries, a little hot, “you can go and look at the copra-house. It’s half empty to this blessed hour.”
“I shouldn’t be much the better for that, you see,” says I. “For all I can tell, it might have been whole empty yesterday.”
“That’s so,” says he, with a bit of a laugh.
“By-the-bye,” I said, “what sort of a party is that priest? Seems rather a friendly sort.”
At this Case laughed right out loud. “Ah!” says he, “I see what ails you now. Galuchet’s been at you.” — FATHER GALOSHES was the name he went by most, but Case always gave it the French quirk, which was another reason we had for thinking him above the common.
“Yes, I have seen him,” I says. “I made out he didn’t think much of your Captain Randall.”
“That he don’t!” says Case. “It was the trouble about poor Adams. The last day, when he lay dying, there was young Buncombe round. Ever met Buncombe?”
I told him no.
“He’s a cure, is Buncombe!” laughs Case. “Well, Buncombe took it in his head that, as there was no other clergyman about, bar Kanaka pastors, we ought to call in Father Galuchet, and have the old man administered and take the sacrament. It was all the same to me, you may suppose; but I said I thought Adams was the fellow to consult. He was jawing away about watered copra and a sight of foolery. ‘Look here,’ I said, ‘you’re pretty sick. Would you like to see Goloshes?’ He sat right up on his elbow. ‘Get the priest,’ says he, ‘get the priest; don’t let me die here like a dog!’ He spoke kind of fierce and eager, but sensible enough. There was nothing to say against that, so we sent and asked Galuchet if he would come. You bet he would. He jumped in his dirty linen at the thought of it. But we had reckoned without Papa. He’s a hard- shell Baptist, is Papa; no Papists need apply. And he took and locked the door. Buncombe told him he was bigoted, and I thought he would have had a fit. ‘Bigoted!’ he says. ‘Me bigoted? Have I lived to hear it from a jackanapes like you?’ And he made for Buncombe, and I had to hold them apart; and there was Adams in the middle, gone luny again, and carrying on about copra like a born fool. It was good as the play, and I was about knocked out of time with laughing, when all of a sudden Adams sat up, clapped his hands to his chest, and went into the horrors. He died hard, did John Adams,” says Case, with a kind of a sudden sternness.
“And what became of the priest?” I asked.
“The priest?” says Case. “O! he was hammering on the door outside, and crying on the natives to come and beat it in, and singing out it was a soul he wished to save, and that. He was in a rare taking, was the priest. But what would you have? Johnny had slipped his cable; no more Johnny in the market; and the administration racket clean played out. Next thing, word came to Randall the priest was praying upon Johnny’s grave. Papa was pretty full, and got a club, and lit out straight for the place, and there was Galoshes on his knees, and a lot of natives looking on. You wouldn’t think Papa cared — that much about anything, unless it was liquor; but he and the priest stuck to it two hours, slanging each other in native, and every time Galoshes tried to kneel down Papa went for him with the club. There never were such larks in Falesa. The end of it was that Captain Randall knocked over with some kind of a fit or stroke, and the priest got in his goods after all. But he was the angriest priest you ever heard of, and complained to the chiefs about the outrage, as he called it. That was no account, for our chiefs are Protestant here; and, anyway, he had been making trouble about the drum for morning school, and they were glad to give him a wipe. Now he swears old Randall gave Adams poison or something, and when the two meet they grin at each other like baboons.”
He told this story as natural as could be, and like a man that enjoyed the fun; though, now I come to think of it after so long, it seems rather a sickening yarn. However, Case never set up to be soft, only to be square and hearty, and a man all round; and, to tell the truth, he puzzled me entirely.
I went home and asked Uma if she were a Popey, which I had made out to be the native word for Catholics.
“E LE AI!” says she. She always used the native when she meant “no” more than usually strong, and, indeed, there’s more of it. “No good Popey,” she added.
Then I asked her about Adams and the priest, and she told me much the same yarn in her own way. So that I was left not much farther on, but inclined, upon the whole, to think the bottom of the matter was the row about the sacrament, and the poisoning only talk.
The next day was a Sunday, when there was no business to be looked for. Uma asked me in the morning if I was going to “pray”; I told her she bet not, and she stopped home herself with no more words. I thought this seemed unlike a native, and a native woman, and a woman that had new clothes to show off; however, it suited me to the ground, and I made the less of it. The queer thing was that I came next door to going to church after all, a thing I’m little likely to forget. I had turned out for a stroll, and heard the hymn tune up. You know how it is. If you hear folk singing, it seems to draw you; and pretty soon I found myself alongside the church. It was a little long low place, coral built, rounded off at both ends like a whale-boat, a big native roof on the top of it, windows without sashes and doorways without doors. I stuck my head into one of the windows, and the sight was so new to me — for things went quite different in the islands I was acquainted with — that I stayed and looked on. The congregation sat on the floor on mats, the women on one side, the men on the other, all rigged out to kill — the women with dresses and trade hats, the men in white jackets and shirts. The hymn was over; the pastor, a big buck Kanaka, was in the pulpit, preaching for his life; and by the way he wagged his hand, and worked his voice, and made his points, and seemed to argue with the folk, I made out he was a gun at the business. Well, he looked up suddenly and caught my eye, and I give you my word he staggered in the pulpit; his eyes bulged out of his head, his hand rose and pointed at me like as if against his will, and the sermon stopped right there.
It isn’t a fine thing to say for yourself, but I ran away; and if the same kind of a shock was given me, I should run away again tomorrow. To see that palavering Kanaka struck all of a heap at the mere sight of me gave me a feeling as if the bottom had dropped out of the world. I went right home, and stayed there, and said nothing. You might think I would tell Uma, but that was against my system. You might have thought I would have gone over and consulted Case; but the truth was I was ashamed to speak of such a thing, I thought everyone would blurt out laughing in my face. So I held my tongue, and thought all the more; and the more I thought, the less I liked the business.
By Monday night I got it clearly in my head I must be tabooed. A new store to stand open two days in a village and not a man or woman come to see the trade was past believing.
“Uma,” said I, “I think I’m tabooed.”
“I think so,” said she.
I thought awhile whether I should ask her more, but it’s a bad idea to set natives up with any notion of consulting them, so I went to Case. It was dark, and he was sitting alone, as he did mostly, smoking on the stairs.
“Case,” said I, “here’s a queer thing. I’m tabooed.”
“O, fudge!” says he; “‘tain’t the practice in these islands.”
“That may be, or it mayn’t,” said I. “It’s the practice where I was before. You can bet I know what it’s like; and I tell it you for a fact, I’m tabooed.”
“Well,” said he, “what have you been doing?”
“That’s what I want to find out,” said I.
“O, you can’t be,” said he; “it ain’t possible. However, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Just to put your mind at rest, I’ll go round and find out for sure. Just you waltz in and talk to Papa.”
“Thank you,” I said, “I’d rather stay right out here on the verandah. Your house is so close.”
“I’ll call Papa out here, then,” says he.
“My dear fellow,” I says, “I wish you wouldn’t. The fact is, I don’t take to Mr. Randall.”
Case laughed, took a lantern from the store, and set out into the village. He was gone perhaps a quarter of an hour, and he looked mighty serious when he came back.
“Well,” said he, clapping down the lantern on the verandah steps, “I would never have believed it. I don’t know where the impudence of these Kanakas ‘ll go next; they seem to have lost all idea of respect for whites. What we want is a man-of-war — a German, if we could — they know how to manage Kanakas.”
“I AM tabooed, then?” I cried.
“Something of the sort,” said he. “It’s the worst thing of the kind I’ve heard of yet. But I’ll stand by you, Wiltshire, man to man. You come round here to-morrow about nine, and we’ll have it out with the chiefs. They’re afraid of me, or they used to be; but their heads are so big by now, I don’t know what to think. Understand me, Wiltshire; I don’t count this your quarrel,” he went on, with a great deal of resolution, “I count it all of our quarrel, I count it the White Man’s Quarrel, and I’ll stand to it through thick and thin, and there’s my hand on it.”
“Have you found out what’s the reason?” I asked.
“Not yet,” said Case. “But we’ll fix them down to-morrow.”
Altogether I was pretty well pleased with his attitude, and almost more the next day, when we met to go before the chiefs, to see him so stern and resolved. The chiefs awaited us in one of their big oval houses, which was marked out to us from a long way off by the crowd about the eaves, a hundred strong if there was one — men, women, and children. Many of the men were on their way to work and wore green wreaths, and it put me in thoughts of the 1st of May at home. This crowd opened and buzzed about the pair of us as we went in, with a sudden angry animation. Five chiefs were there; four mighty stately men, the fifth old and puckered. They sat on mats in their white kilts and jackets; they had fans in their hands, like fine ladies; and two of the younger ones wore Catholic medals, which gave me matter of reflection. Our place was set, and the mats laid for us over against these grandees, on the near side of the house; the midst was empty; the crowd, close at our backs, murmured and craned and jostled to look on, and the shadows of them tossed in front of us on the clean pebbles of the floor. I was just a hair put out by the excitement of the commons, but the quiet civil appearance of the chiefs reassured me, all the more when their spokesman began and made a long speech in a low tone of voice, sometimes waving his hand towards Case, sometimes toward me, and sometimes knocking with his knuckles on the mat. One thing was clear: there was no sign of anger in the chiefs.
“What’s he been saying?” I asked, when he had done.
“O, just that they’re glad to see you, and they understand by me you wish to make some kind of complaint, and you’re to fire away, and they’ll do the square thing.”
“It took a precious long time to say that,” said I.
“O, the rest was sawder and BONJOUR and that,” said Case. “You know what Kanakas are.”
“Well, they don’t get much BONJOUR out of me,” said I. “You tell them who I am. I’m a white man, and a British subject, and no end of a big chief at home; and I’ve come here to do them good, and bring them civilisation; and no sooner have I got my trade sorted out than they go and taboo me, and no one dare come near my place! Tell them I don’t mean to fly in the face of anything legal; and if what they want’s a present, I’ll do what’s fair. I don’t blame any man looking out for himself, tell them, for that’s human nature; but if they think they’re going to come any of their native ideas over me, they’ll find themselves mistaken. And tell them plain that I demand the reason of this treatment as a white man and a British subject.”
That was my speech. I know how to deal with Kanakas: give them plain sense and fair dealing, and — I’ll do them that much justice - they knuckle under every time. They haven’t any real government or any real law, that’s what you’ve got to knock into their heads; and even if they had, it would be a good joke if it was to apply to a white man. It would be a strange thing if we came all this way and couldn’t do what we pleased. The mere idea has always put my monkey up, and I rapped my speech out pretty big. Then Case translated it — or made believe to, rather — and the first chief replied, and then a second, and a third, all in the same style, easy and genteel, but solemn underneath. Once a question was put to Case, and he answered it, and all hands (both chiefs and commons) laughed out aloud, and looked at me. Last of all, the puckered old fellow and the big young chief that spoke first started in to put Case through a kind of catechism. Sometimes I made out that Case was trying to fence, and they stuck to him like hounds, and the sweat ran down his face, which was no very pleasant sight to me, and at some of his answers the crowd moaned and murmured, which was a worse hearing. It’s a cruel shame I knew no native, for (as I now believe) they were asking Case about my marriage, and he must have had a tough job of it to clear his feet. But leave Case alone; he had the brains to ran a parliament.
“Well, is that all?” I asked, when a pause came.
“Come along,” says he, mopping his face; “I’ll tell you outside.”
“Do you mean they won’t take the taboo off?” I cried.
“It’s something queer,” said he. “I’ll tell you outside. Better come away.”
“I won’t take it at their hands,” cried I. “I ain’t that kind of a man. You don’t find me turn my back on a parcel of Kanakas.”
“You’d better,” said Case.
He looked at me with a signal in his eye; and the five chiefs looked at me civilly enough, but kind of pointed; and the people looked at me and craned and jostled. I remembered the folks that watched my house, and how the pastor had jumped in his pulpit at the bare sight of me; and the whole business seemed so out of the way that I rose and followed Case. The crowd opened again to let us through, but wider than before, the children on the skirts running and singing out, and as we two white men walked away they all stood and watched us.
“And now,” said I, “what is all this about?”
“The truth is I can’t rightly make it out myself. They have a down on you,” says Case.
“Taboo a man because they have a down on him!” I cried. “I never heard the like.”
“It’s worse than that, you see,” said Case. “You ain’t tabooed — I told you that couldn’t be. The people won’t go near you, Wiltshire, and there’s where it is.”
“They won’t go near me? What do you mean by that? Why won’t they go near me?” I cried.
Case hesitated. “Seems they’re frightened,” says he, in a low, voice.
I stopped dead short. “Frightened?” I repeated. “Are you gone crazy, Case? What are they frightened of?”
“I wish I could make out,” Case answered, shaking his head. “Appears like one of their tomfool superstitions. That’s what I don’t cotton to,” he said. “It’s like the business about Vigours.”
“I’d like to know what you mean by that, and I’ll trouble you to tell me,” says I.
“Well, you know, Vigours lit out and left all standing,” said he. “It was some superstition business — I never got the hang of it but it began to look bad before the end.”
“I’ve heard a different story about that,” said I, “and I had better tell you so. I heard he ran away because of you.”
“O! well, I suppose he was ashamed to tell the truth,” says Case; “I guess he thought it silly. And it’s a fact that I packed him off. ‘What would you do, old man?’ says he. ‘Get,’ says I, ‘and not think twice about it.’ I was the gladdest kind of man to see him clear away. It ain’t my notion to turn my back on a mate when he’s in a tight place, but there was that much trouble in the village that I couldn’t see where it might likely end. I was a fool to be so much about with Vigours. They cast it up to me to- day. Didn’t you hear Maea — that’s the young chief, the big one — ripping out about ‘Vika’? That was him they were after. They don’t seem to forget it, somehow.”
“This is all very well,” said I, “but it don’t tell me what’s wrong; it don’t tell me what they’re afraid of — what their idea is.”
“Well, I wish I knew,” said Case. “I can’t say fairer than that.”
“You might have asked, I think,” says I.
“And so I did,” says he. “But you must have seen for yourself, unless you’re blind, that the asking got the other way. I’ll go as far as I dare for another white man; but when I find I’m in the scrape myself, I think first of my own bacon. The loss of me is I’m too good-natured. And I’ll take the freedom of telling you you show a queer kind of gratitude to a man who’s got into all this mess along of your affairs.”
“There’s a thing I am thinking of,” said I. “You were a fool to be so much about with Vigours. One comfort, you haven’t been much about with me. I notice you’ve never been inside my house. Own up now; you had word of this before?”
“It’s a fact I haven’t been,” said he. “It was an oversight, and I am sorry for it, Wiltshire. But about coming now, I’ll be quite plain.”
“You mean you won’t?” I asked.
“Awfully sorry, old man, but that’s the size of it,” says Case.
“In short, you’re afraid?” says I.
“In short, I’m afraid,” says he.
“And I’m still to be tabooed for nothing?” I asked
“I tell you you’re not tabooed,” said he. “The Kanakas won’t go near you, that’s all. And who’s to make ‘em? We traders have a lot of gall, I must say; we make these poor Kanakas take back their laws, and take up their taboos, and that, whenever it happens to suit us. But you don’t mean to say you expect a law obliging people to deal in your store whether they want to or not? You don’t mean to tell me you’ve got the gall for that? And if you had, it would be a queer thing to propose to me. I would just like to point out to you, Wiltshire, that I’m a trader myself.”
“I don’t think I would talk of gall if I was you,” said I. “Here’s about what it comes to, as well as I can make out: None of the people are to trade with me, and they’re all to trade with you. You’re to have the copra, and I’m to go to the devil and shake myself. And I don’t know any native, and you’re the only man here worth mention that speaks English, and you have the gall to up and hint to me my life’s in danger, and all you’ve got to tell me is you don’t know why!”
“Well, it IS all I have to tell you,” said he. “I don’t know — I wish I did.”
“And so you turn your back and leave me to myself! Is that the position?” says I.
“If you like to put it nasty,” says he. “I don’t put it so. I say merely, ‘I’m going to keep clear of you; or, if I don’t, I’ll get in danger for myself.’ ”
“Well,” says I, “you’re a nice kind of a white man!”
“O, I understand; you’re riled,” said he. “I would be myself. I can make excuses.”
“All right,” I said, “go and make excuses somewhere else. Here’s my way, there’s yours!”
With that we parted, and I went straight home, in a hot temper, and found Uma trying on a lot of trade goods like a baby.
“Here,” I said, “you quit that foolery! Here’s a pretty mess to have made, as if I wasn’t bothered enough anyway! And I thought I told you to get dinner!”
And then I believe I gave her a bit of the rough side of my tongue, as she deserved. She stood up at once, like a sentry to his officer; for I must say she was always well brought up, and had a great respect for whites.
“And now,” says I, “you belong round here, you’re bound to understand this. What am I tabooed for, anyway? Or, if I ain’t tabooed, what makes the folks afraid of me?”
She stood and looked at me with eyes like saucers.
“You no savvy?” she gasps at last.
“No,” said I. “How would you expect me to? We don’t have any such craziness where I come from.”
“Ese no tell you?” she asked again.
(ESE was the name the natives had for Case; it may mean foreign, or extraordinary; or it might mean a mummy apple; but most like it was only his own name misheard and put in a Kanaka spelling.)
“Not much,” said I.
“D-n Ese!” she cried.
You might think it funny to hear this Kanaka girl come out with a big swear. No such thing. There was no swearing in her — no, nor anger; she was beyond anger, and meant the word simple and serious. She stood there straight as she said it. I cannot justly say that I ever saw a woman look like that before or after, and it struck me mum. Then she made a kind of an obeisance, but it was the proudest kind, and threw her hands out open.
“I ‘shamed,” she said. “I think you savvy. Ese he tell me you savvy, he tell me you no mind, tell me you love me too much. Taboo belong me,” she said, touching herself on the bosom, as she had done upon our wedding-night. “Now I go ‘way, taboo he go ‘way too. Then you get too much copra. You like more better, I think. TOFA, ALII,” says she in the native — “Farewell, chief!”
“Hold on!” I cried. “Don’t be in such a hurry.”
She looked at me sidelong with a smile. “You see, you get copra,” she said, the same as you might offer candies to a child.
“Uma,” said I, “hear reason. I didn’t know, and that’s a fact; and Case seems to have played it pretty mean upon the pair of us. But I do know now, and I don’t mind; I love you too much. You no go ‘way, you no leave me, I too much sorry.”
“You no love, me,” she cried, “you talk me bad words!” And she threw herself in a corner of the floor, and began to cry.
Well, I’m no scholar, but I wasn’t born yesterday, and I thought the worst of that trouble was over. However, there she lay — her back turned, her face to the wall — and shook with sobbing like a little child, so that her feet jumped with it. It’s strange how it hits a man when he’s in love; for there’s no use mincing things — Kanaka and all, I was in love with her, or just as good. I tried to take her hand, but she would none of that. “Uma,” I said, “there’s no sense in carrying on like this. I want you stop here, I want my little wifie, I tell you true.”
“No tell me true,” she sobbed.
“All right,” says I, “I’ll wait till you’re through with this.” And I sat right down beside her on the floor, and set to smooth her hair with my hand. At first she wriggled away when I touched her; then she seemed to notice me no more; then her sobs grew gradually less, and presently stopped; and the next thing I knew, she raised her face to mime.
“You tell me true? You like me stop?” she asked.
“Uma,” I said, “I would rather have you than all the copra in the South Seas,” which was a very big expression, and the strangest thing was that I meant it.
She threw her arms about me, sprang close up, and pressed her face to mine in the island way of kissing, so that I was all wetted with her tears, and my heart went out to her wholly. I never had anything so near me as this little brown bit of a girl. Many things went together, and all helped to turn my head. She was pretty enough to eat; it seemed she was my only friend in that queer place; I was ashamed that I had spoken rough to her: and she was a woman, and my wife, and a kind of a baby besides that I was sorry for; and the salt of her tears was in my mouth. And I forgot Case and the natives; and I forgot that I knew nothing of the story, or only remembered it to banish the remembrance; and I forgot that I was to get no copra, and so could make no livelihood; and I forgot my employers, and the strange kind of service I was doing them, when I preferred my fancy to their business; and I forgot even that Uma was no true wife of mine, but just a maid beguiled, and that in a pretty shabby style. But that is to look too far on. I will come to that part of it next.
It was late before we thought of getting dinner. The stove was out, and gone stone-cold; but we fired up after a while, and cooked each a dish, helping and hindering each other, and making a play of it like children. I was so greedy of her nearness that I sat down to dinner with my lass upon my knee, made sure of her with one hand, and ate with the other. Ay, and more than that. She was the worst cook I suppose God made; the things she set her hand to it would have sickened an honest horse to eat of; yet I made my meal that day on Uma’s cookery, and can never call to mind to have been better pleased.
I didn’t pretend to myself, and I didn’t pretend to her. I saw I was clean gone; and if she was to make a fool of me, she must. And I suppose it was this that set her talking, for now she made sure that we were friends. A lot she told me, sitting in my lap and eating my dish, as I ate hers, from foolery — a lot about herself and her mother and Case, all which would be very tedious, and fill sheets if I set it down in Beach de Mar, but which I must give a hint of in plain English, and one thing about myself which had a very big effect on my concerns, as you are soon to hear.
It seems she was born in one of the Line Islands; had been only two or three years in these parts, where she had come with a white man, who was married to her mother and then died; and only the one year in Falesa. Before that they had been a good deal on the move, trekking about after the white man, who was one of those rolling stones that keep going round after a soft job. They talk about looking for gold at the end of a rainbow; but if a man wants an employment that’ll last him till he dies, let him start out on the soft-job hunt. There’s meat and drink in it too, and beer and skittles, for you never hear of them starving, and rarely see them sober; and as for steady sport, cock-fighting isn’t in the same county with it. Anyway, this beachcomber carried the woman and her daughter all over the shop, but mostly to out-of-the-way islands, where there were no police, and he thought, perhaps, the soft job hung out. I’ve my own view of this old party; but I was just as glad he had kept Uma clear of Apia and Papeete and these flash towns. At last he struck Fale-alii on this island, got some trade - the Lord knows how! — muddled it all away in the usual style, and died worth next to nothing, bar a bit of land at Falesa that he had got for a bad debt, which was what put it in the minds of the mother and daughter to come there and live. It seems Case encouraged them all he could, and helped to get their house built. He was very kind those days, and gave Uma trade, and there is no doubt he had his eye on her from the beginning. However, they had scarce settled, when up turned a young man, a native, and wanted to marry her. He was a small chief, and had some fine mats and old songs in his family, and was “very pretty,” Uma said; and, altogether, it was an extra-ordinary match for a penniless girl and an out-islander.
At the first word of this I got downright sick with jealousy.
“And you mean to say you would have married him?” I cried.
“IOE, yes,” said she. “I like too much!”
“Well!” I said. “And suppose I had come round after?”
“I like you more better now,” said she. “But, suppose I marry Ioane, I one good wife. I no common Kanaka. Good girl!” says she.
Well, I had to be pleased with that; but I promise you I didn’t care about the business one little bit. And I liked the end of that yarn no better than the beginning. For it seems this proposal of marriage was the start of all the trouble. It seems, before that, Uma and her mother had been looked down upon, of course, for kinless folk and out-islanders, but nothing to hurt; and, even when Ioane came forward, there was less trouble at first than might have been looked for. And then, all of a sudden, about six months before my coming, Ioane backed out and left that part of the island, and from that day to this Uma and her mother had found themselves alone. None called at their house, none spoke to them on the roads. If they went to church, the other women drew their mats away and left them in a clear place by themselves. It was a regular excommunication, like what you read of in the Middle Ages; and the cause or sense of it beyond guessing. It was some TALA PEPELO, Uma said, some lie, some calumny; and all she knew of it was that the girls who had been jealous of her luck with Ioane used to twit her with his desertion, and cry out, when they met her alone in the woods, that she would never be married. “They tell me no man he marry me. He too much ‘fraid,” she said.
The only soul that came about them after this desertion was Master Case. Even he was chary of showing himself, and turned up mostly by night; and pretty soon he began to table his cards and make up to Uma. I was still sore about Ioane, and when Case turned up in the same line of business I cut up downright rough.
“Well,” I said, sneering, “and I suppose you thought Case ‘very pretty’ and ‘liked too much’?”
“Now you talk silly,” said she. “White man, he come here, I marry him all-e-same Kanaka; very well then, he marry me all-e-same white woman. Suppose he no marry, he go ‘way, woman he stop. All-e-same thief, empty hand, Tonga-heart — no can love! Now you come marry me. You big heart — you no ‘shamed island-girl. That thing I love you for too much. I proud.”
I don’t know that ever I felt sicker all the days of my life. I laid down my fork, and I put away “the island-girl”; I didn’t seem somehow to have any use for either, and I went and walked up and down in the house, and Uma followed me with her eyes, for she was troubled, and small wonder! But troubled was no word for it with me. I so wanted, and so feared, to make a clean breast of the sweep that I had been.
And just then there came a sound of singing out of the sea; it sprang up suddenly clear and near, as the boat turned the headland, and Uma, running to the window, cried out it was “Misi” come upon his rounds.
I thought it was a strange thing I should be glad to have a missionary; but, if it was strange, it was still true.
“Uma,” said I, “you stop here in this room, and don’t budge a foot out of it till I come back.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00