By Reef and Palm/Long Charley's Good Little Wife
LONG CHARLEY’S GOOD LITTLE WIFE
There was the island, only ten miles away, and there it had been for a whole week. Sometimes we had got near enough to see Long Charley’s house and the figures of natives walking on the yellow beach; and then the westerly current would set us away to leeward again. But that night a squall came up, and in half an hour we were running down to the land. When the lights on the beach showed up we hove-to until daylight, and then found the surf too heavy to let us land.
We got in close to the reef, and could see that the trader’s copra-house was full, for there were also hundreds of bags outside, awaiting our boats. It was clearly worth staying for. The trader, a tall, thin, pyjama-clad man, came down to the water’s edge, waved his long arm, and then turned back and sat down on a bag of copra. We went about and passed the village again, and once more the long man came to the water’s edge, waved his arm, and retired to his seat.
In the afternoon we saw a native and Charley together among the bags; then the native left him, and, as it was now low tide, the kanaka was able to walk to the edge of the reef, where he signalled to us. Seeing that he meant to swim off, the skipper went in as close as possible, and backed his foreyard. Watching his chance for a lull in the yet fierce breakers, the native slid over the reef and swam out to us as only a Line Islander or a Tokelau man can swim.
“How’s Charley?” we asked, when the dark man reached the deck.
“Who? Charley? Oh, he fine, plenty copra. Tāpā! my bowels are filled with the sea—for one dollar! Here ariki vaka (captain) and you tuhi tuhi (supercargo),” said the native, removing from his perforated and pendulous ear-lobe a little roll of leaf, “take this letter from the mean one that giveth but a dollar for facing such a galu (surf). Hast plenty tobacco on board, friends of my heart? Apā, the surf! Not a canoe crew could the white man get to face it. Is it good twist tobacco, friends, or the flat cakes? Know that I am a man of Nanomea, not one of these dog-eating people here, and a strong swimmer, else the letter had not come.”
The supercargo took the note. It was rolled up in many thicknesses of banana-leaf, which had kept it dry:—
“Dear friends—I have Been waiting for you for near 5 months. I am Chock full of Cobberah and Shark Fins one Ton. I am near Starved Out, No Biscit, no Beef, no flour, not Enything to Eat. for god’s Saik send me a case of Gin ashore if you Don’t mean to Hang on till the sea goes Down. Not a Woman comes Near me because I am Run out of Traid, so please try also to Send a Peece of Good print, as there are some fine Women here from Nukunau, and I think I can get one for a wife if I am smart. If you Can’t take my Cobberah, and mean to Go away, send the Squair face, for god’s saik, and something for the Woman—Your obliged Friend, Charles.”
We parcelled a bottle of gin round with a small coir line, and sent it ashore by the Nanomea man. Charley and a number of natives came to the edge of the reef to lend a hand in landing the bearer of the treasure. Then they all waded back to the beach, headed by the white man in the dirty pyjamas and sodden-looking fala hat. Reaching his house, he turned his following away, and shut the door.
“I bet a dollar that fellow wouldn’t swap billets with the angel Gabriel at this partikler moment,” said our profane mate thoughtfully.
We started weighing and shipping the copra next day. After finishing up, the solemn Charley invited the skipper and supercargo to remain ashore till morning. His great trouble, he told us, was that he had not yet secured a wife, “a reg’lar wife, y’know.” He had, unluckily, “lost the run” of the last Mrs. Charley during his absence at another island of the group, and negotiations with various local young women had been broken off owing to his having run out of trade. In the South Seas, as in the civilised world generally, to get the girl of your heart is usually a mere matter of trade. There were, he told us with a melancholy look, “some fine Nukunau girls here on a visit, but the one I want don’t seem to care much about stayin’, unless all this new trade fetches her.”
“Who is she?” enquired the skipper.
“Let’s have a look at her,” said the skipper, a man of kind impulses, who felt sorry at the intermittency of the Long One’s connubial relations.
The tall, scraggy trader shambled to the door and bawled out: “Tibākwā, Tibākwā, Tibākwā, O!” three times.
The people, singing in the big moniep or town-house, stopped their monotonous droning, and the name of Tibākwā was yelled vociferously throughout the village in true Gilbert Group style. In the Gilberts, if a native in one corner of a house speaks to another in the opposite, he bawls loud enough to be heard a mile off.
Tibākwā (The Shark) was a short, squat fellow, with his broad back and chest scored and seamed with an intricate and inartistic network of cicatrices made by shark’s-teeth swords. His hair, straight, coarse, and jet-black, was cut away square from just above his eyebrows to the top of his ears, leaving his fierce countenance in a sort of frame. Each ear-lobe bore a load—one had two or three sticks of tobacco, twined in and about the distended circle of flesh, and the other a clasp-knife and wooden pipe. Stripped to the waist he showed his muscular outlines to perfection, and he sat down unasked in the bold, self-confident, half-defiant manner natural to the Line Islander.
“Where’s Tirau?” asked the trader.
“Here,” said the man of wounds, pointing outside, and he called out in a voice like the bellow of a bull—“Tirau O, nako mai!” (Come here!)
Tirau came in timidly, clothed only in a ridi or girdle, and slunk into a far corner.
The melancholy trader and the father pulled her out, and she dumped herself down in the middle of the room with a muttered “E puākăkă te matan!” (Bad white man).
“Fine girl, Charley,” said the skipper, digging him in the ribs. “Ought to suit you, eh! Make a good little wife.”
Negotiations commenced anew. Father willing to part, girl frightened—commenced to cry. The astute Charley brought out some new trade. Tirau’s eye here displayed a faint interest. Charley threw her, with the air of a prince, a whole piece of turkey twill, twelve yards—value three dollars, cost about 2s. 3d. Tirau put out a little hand and drew it gingerly toward her. Tibākwā gave us an atrocious wink.
“She’s cottoned!” exclaimed Charley.
And thus, without empty and hollow display, were two loving hearts made to beat as one. As a practical proof of the solemnity of the occasion, the bridegroom then and there gave Tirau his bunch of keys, which she carefully tied to a strand of her ridi, and, smoking one of the captain’s Manillas, she proceeded to bash out the mosquitoes from the nuptial couch with a fan. We assisted her, an hour afterwards, to hoist the sleeping body of Long Charley therein, and telling her to bathe his head in the morning with cold water, we rose to go.
“Good-bye, Tirau!” we said.
“Tiakapō,” said the Good Little Wife, as she rolled up an empty square gin bottle in one of Charley’s shirts for a pillow, and disposed her graceful figure on the matted floor beside his bed, to fight mosquitoes until daylight.
- Square face—Hollands gin