hd_450a.gif (7537 bytes)

OCEANIA

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON - SOUTH SEA TALES

           

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 of 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 the islands?' 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 her4e 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 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 had 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 cam 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 poised 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 today, 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 dodger, in the islands. I thought Falesa seemed to be the right kind of a place; and the more I drank the lighter my heart. One last trader had fled the place at half an hour's notice, taking a chance passage in a labour ship from u 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 potluck, 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 the 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 lug 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 of two 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 to 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' pretty full this morning,' observed Case. 'We've had an epidemic here, and Captain Randall takes gin for a prohylactic - don't you, Papa?'
'Never took such a thing in my life!' cried the captain indignantly. 'Take gin for my health's sake, Mr Wha'sever-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 wrench 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 stilling hot and full of flies, for the house was dirty and low and small, and stood in a bad lace, 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 in 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 tin 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, beading 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 kind of song.

'Who the devil's this?' cried I, for the thing startled me.
'It's Fa'arao,' says Randall; and 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 today, for the marriage, 'a Uma's mother.'
'Well, suppose it is, what's the 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 Batis', 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'arao 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 my 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 mou7ntebank 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'aarao of Falesi island of ---, is illegally married to Mr John Wiltshire for one night, and Mr John wilshire is at liberty to send her to hell next morning

                                         John Blackmore
                                         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 fel 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 breadfruit-cooking, there came a fine roll of sea from the ref, 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 as 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 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 taps 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 btter 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.

THE BAN

I came on the verandah just below 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 gave 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 and even the hum of their speaking came my length. The rest were like graven 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 by 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 further 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 scar3es 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 food 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 doorway and looked in, and turned and looked far up the mountain and saw the coconuts waving and post3d 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 Falesi 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 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 Johnny Adams?'
'Every man he savvy that,' says Uma, scornful-like. 'Gone him whites and - 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 i,' 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 Galoshes?' 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 ad asked Caluchet 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;' 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 bet 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 courage, 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 lei au!' 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 father 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 uip. 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 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. Yo9u 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 tabboed. A new store to stand open two days in a village and not a manor 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 tabboed.'
'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 Paipa.'
'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 tabboed, 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 tomorrow 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 one, 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 tomorrow.'

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 toward 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 civilization; 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 the 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 in 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 run 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. hey have a down on you,' says '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, Cased? 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 today. 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 myuself, 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.'

Robert Louis Stevenson South Sea Tales 1

Oceania Portraits - The Robert Louis Stevenson Collection

Oceania - The Final Voyages of Robert Louis Stevenson

click here Jane's Polynesia Home Page
   click here Jane's Micronesia Home Page
  click here Jane's Melanesia Home Page
 click here Jane's Oceania Home Page    
 
Pacific Islands Radio Stations
 
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Jane's Oceania Travel Page
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 29th January 2009)