Long Charley's Good Little Wife by Louis Becke
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. Tapa 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 man that giveth but a dollar for facing such
a galu (surf). Hast plenty tobacco on board, friends of my heart? Apa, 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
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 or I shall Starve. 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: "Tibakwa, Tibakwa, Tibakwa, O!"
The people, singing in the big moniep or town-house, stopped their monotonous
droning, and the name of Tibakwa, was yelled vociferously through-out 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
Tibakwa (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
sharks' 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 an airiri 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 puak&acaron;k&acaron; te
malan! (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 then began 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, 12 yards -- value three dollars, cost about 2s. 3d. Tirau put out a
little hand and drew it gingerly toward her. Tibakwa 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
airiri, 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.
"Tiakapo", 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.