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Return to the Islands

Final Lesson

Final Lesson

Reggie McClure had had about enough of me at headquarters by late August, 1922, so it was decided that I should now go across to the Gilbert Islands and get along with the business of starting a lands commission there. The date of my proposed departure had been fixed, and all farewell calls save one religiously paid, when news came through that my ship was going to arrive the next morning, exactly a week earlier than expected.

That same day, my name-child Roti-mé-ré came to give me one last lesson in Gilbertese manners, which means that she wasn't visiting me under the name of Roti-mé-ré at all, but under her educational alias of Female Straighten-ways, and it was as Straighten-ways that I greeted her.

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My invariable response to these cultural calls of hers had hitherto been to drop in at her grandfather's house bearing small gifts some days later. Three days was the minimum delay prescribed by custom; but it was clear I couldn't live up to the time protocols on this occasion; and I hoped that, in the circumstances, she might waive the strict formalities and accept my gift—a modest ten-shilling note—as she was leaving me.

She gave the note a long, shining look as it lay across her palm—this was the first time I had ever given her money. "What a great sum it is!" she murmured at last: "I have never before held so much in my hand to squander according to my heart."

And then, almost in the same breath, her face suddenly tragic, she cried aloud, "But, alas, I cannot take it! It would not be correct."

I thought she was afraid her grandmother might scold her for taking money from me instead of gifts in kind. "I shouldn't worry about that if I were you," I said with idiot indulgence, closing her fingers on the note: " The new things you have told me today are worth much more than this. Take it with my thanks, and now be off with you."

She threw up an arm as if I had struck her. "No!" she breathed, and again, "No! Those things were my love-gift to you. I cannot take money for them." Pressing the note back into my hand, she turned and walked quickly out of the house. She was half-way down the garden path before I could stop her.

When she consented to be seated again she left me in no doubt as to the clumsiness of my offence against her people's philosophy of giving and receiving. If a friend brought you a present, you couldn't go offering him instant payment for it as if he had come without love, like a trader, with something to sell you. The only proper procedure was to sit thinking of nothing but his loving-kindness first of all. You thought of it page 47continuously for three days at least. Only then you visited him with an answering gift, and not even then with any idea of settling an account with him, but simply because you wanted him to know that your love went out to meet his, fullness for fullness.

" So you think this will have to wait," I was driven to say at last, holding up the note, "until something or other brings me back to Baanaba?"

"I think it would be correct for you to hold it until you next visit our house," was her forlorn answer. Her heartbroken gaze dwelt on it awhile. "Alas!" Then she added anxiously, "You won't forget, will you?"

"Of course not, you silly. Haven't you just been telling me the right way to remember? But instead of sitting and thinking of your kindness for just three or four days, I shall be doing so for three or four months. I shall like that."

"And I shall be happy waiting for your return," she ended, getting up and tearing herself away: "Alas!"

Her back view as I watched her disappear round a bend of the path was the saddest view I have ever had of anyone.

I was just sitting down, rather depressed, to think what more I could do about it when I heard a sudden scream from afar and looked up to see her rushing back along the path, her whole person radiating happiness.

"Why, welcome again, Straighten-ways," I called as she came bouncing up the steps, "and what is it now?"

"Not Straighten-ways," she laughed, standing with dramatically outflung arms before me: "That woman Straighten-ways has just left you. Behold now your name-child, Roti-mé-ré!"

All by herself she had found the way through—how, in short, to set one custom to cancel out another. As Straighten-ways she was helplessly bound by obedience to the immemorial page 48usage she professed to be teaching me; but as my name-child, usage itself ordained that her first obligation of obedience was owed personally to me. She took the note gently from my hand.

"Do you order me to take this gift, Kurimbo?"

"I order you, Roti-mé-ré, name-sister of my daughter."

"I obey, Kurimbo," she called: "The kind one, you!" and, bidding me good-bye, ran off, the note pressed to her happy heart.

Outrigger sailing canoe