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The Doctor's Wife by Louis Becke


Consanguinity -- From A Polynesian Standpoint

"OHO!" said Lagisiva, the widow, tossing her hair back over her shoulders, as she raised the heavy, fluted tappa mallet in her thick, strong right hand, and dealt the rough cloth a series of quick strokes -- "Oho!" said the dark-faced Lagisiva, looking up at the White Man, "because I be a woman dost think me a fool? I tell thee I know some of the customs of the papalagi (the white foreigners). Much wisdom have ye in many things; but again I tell thee, O friend of my sons, that in some other things the people of thy nation -- ay, of all white nations, they be as the beasts of the forest -- the wild goat and pig -- without reason and without shame. Tah! Has not my eldest son, Tui Fau, whom the white men call Bob, lived for seven years in Sini (Sydney), when he returned from those places by New Guinea, where he was diver? And he has filled my ears with the bad and shameless customs of the papalagi. Isa! I say again thy women have not the shame of ours. The heat of desire devoureth chastity even in those of one blood!"

"In what do they offend, O my mother?"

"Aue! Life is short; and, behold, this piece of siapo is for a wedding present, and I must hurry; but yet put down thy gun and bag, and we shall smoke awhile, and thou shalt feel shame while I tell of one of the papalagi customs -- the marrying of brother and sister!"

"Nay, mother," said the White Man, "not brother and sister, but only cousins."

"Isa!" and the big widow spat scornfully on the ground, "those are words -- words. It is the same; the same is the blood, the same is the bone. Even in our heathen days we pointed the finger at one who looked with the eye of love on the daughter of his father's brother or sister -- for such did we let his blood out upon the sand. And I, old Lagisiva, have seen a white man brought to shame through this wickedness!"

"Tell me," said the White Man.

. . . . .

"He was a foma'i (doctor), and rich, and came here because he desired to see strange places, and was weary of his life in the land of the papalagi. So he remained with us, and hunted the wild boar with our young men, and became strong and hardy, and like unto one of our people. And then, because he was for ever restless, he sailed away once and returned in a small ship, and brought back trade and built a store and a fine house to dwell in. The chief of this town gave him, for friendship, a piece of land over there by the Vai-ta-milo, and thus did he become a still greater man. His store was full of rich goods, and he kept many servants, and at night-time his house was as a blaze of fire, for the young men and women would go there and sing and dance, and he had many lovers amongst our young girls.

"I, old Lagisiva, who am now fat and dull, was one. Oho, he was a man of plenty! Did a girl but look out between her eyelashes at a piece of print in the store, lo! it was hers, even though it measured twenty fathoms in length -- and print was a dollar a fathom in those days. So every girl -- even those from parts far off -- cast herself in his way, that he might notice her. And he was generous to all alike -- in that alone was wisdom.

. . . . .

"Once or twice every year the ships brought him letters. And he would count the marks on the paper, and tell us that they came from a woman of the papalagi -- his cousin, as you would call her -- whose picture was hung over his table. She was for ever smiling down upon us, and her eyes were his eyes, and if he but smiled then were the two alike -- alike as are two children of the same birth. When three years had come and gone a ship brought him a letter, and that night there were many of us at his house, men and women, to talk with the people from the ship. When those had gone away to their sleep, he called to the chief, and said:--

"'In two days, O my friend, I set out for my land again; but to return, for much do I desire to remain with you always. In six months I shall be here again. And there is one thing I would speak of. I shall bring back a white wife, a woman of my own country, whom I have loved for many years.'

"Then Tamaali'i, the chief, who was my father's father, and very old, said, 'She shall be my daughter, and welcome,' and many of us young girls said also, 'She shall be welcome' -- although we felt sorrowful to lose a lover so good and open-handed. And then did the foma'i call to the old chief and two others, and they entered the store and lighted lamps, and presently a man went forth into the village, and cried aloud: 'Come hither, all people, and listen!' So, many hundreds came, and we all went in and found the floor covered with some of everything that the white man possessed. And the chief spoke and said:

"'Behold, my people, this our good friend goeth away to his own country that he may bring back a wife. And because many young unmarried girls will say, "Why does he leave us? Are not we as good to look upon as this other woman?" does he put these presents here on the ground and these words into my mouth -- "Out of his love to you, which must be a thing that is past and forgotten, the wife that is coming must not know of some little things -- that is papalagi custom."'

"And then every girl that had a wish took whatever she fancied, and the white man charged us to say naught that would arouse the anger of the wife that was to come. And so he departed.

. . . . .

"One hundred and ten fat hogs killed we and roasted whole for the feast of welcome. I swear it by the Holy Ones of God's Kingdom -- one hundred and ten. And yet this white lily of his never smiled -- not even on us young girls who danced and sang before her, only she clung to his arm, and, behold, when we drew close to her we saw it was the woman in the picture -- his sister!

"And then one by one all those that had gathered to do him honour went away in shame -- shame that he should do this, wed his own sister, and many women said worse of her. But yet the feast -- the hogs, and yams, and taro, and fish, and fowls -- was brought and placed by his doorstep, but no one spake, and at night-time he was alone with his wife, till he sent for the old chief, and reproached him with bitter words for the coldness of the people, and asked: 'Why is this?'

. . . . .

"And the old man pointed to the picture over the table, and said: 'Is this she -- thy wife?'

"'Ay,' said the White Man.

"'Is she not of the same blood as thyself?'

"'Even so,' said he.

"'Then shalt thou live alone in thy shame,' said the old man; and he went away.

"So, for many months, these two lived. He found some to work for him, and some young girls to tend his sister, whom he called his wife, whilst she lay ill with her first child. And the day after it was born, some one whispered: 'He is accursed! the child cries not -- it is dumb.' For a week it lived, yet never did it cry, for the curse of wickedness was upon it. Then the white man nursed her tenderly, and took her away to live in Fiji for six months. When they came back it was the same -- no one cared to go inside his house, and he cursed us, and said he would bring men from Tokelau to work for him. We said naught. Then in time another child was born, and it was hideous to look upon, and that also died.

. . . . .

"Now, there was a girl amongst us whose name was Suni, to whom the white woman spoke much, for she was learning our tongue, and Suni, by reason of the white woman's many presents, spoke openly to her, and told her of the village talk. Then the white woman wept, and arose and spoke to the man for a long while. And she came back to Suni, and said: 'What thou hast told me was in my own heart three years ago; yet, because it is the custom of my people, I married this man, who is the son of my father's brother. But now I shall go away.' Then the white man came out and beat Suni with a stick. But yet was his sister, whom he called his wife, eaten up with shame, and when a ship came they went away, and we saw her not again. For about two years we heard no more of our white man, till he returned and said the woman was dead. And he took Suni for wife, who bore him three children, and then they went away to some other country -- I know not where."

. . . . .

"I thank thee many, many times, O friend of my sons. Four children of mine here live in this village, yet not a one of them ever asketh me when I last smoked. May God walk with thee always for this stick of tobacco."


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