Return to the Islands
But real life had its romances, too. A regal old lady of Tarawa, Nei Taaruru, surrounded by her great-great-grandchildren, once told me how she, as a girl of perhaps fifteen, had won happiness with the mate of her own undaunted choice. It was a drama eighty years old and more as she spoke, and death in faction warfare had robbed her of her man long since. But the triumph of it was still fresh for her. Her voice rang so full and proud in the telling, I could picture her still for the gallant, flaming thing she must have been those many years ago.
I had said something about the amazing power a wife had, in the last resort, to save her younger sisters from becoming the mere chattels of men.
"Yes," she answered with a smile, "it was a strong power. Here I sit alive to witness it, who would have died but for the prayer of a loving sister."
She paused to think a little and then said, "They are all dead now. None will be shamed if I speak. Listen … this was the way of it…
"I was the youngest daughter of my father. We were a large family of girls. So, when my eldest sister married, I was taken by her with two others into her husband's house.
"And when I came to puberty, my sister's husband arranged a marriage for me with a friend of his. That man was a toke (chief), very rich in land, and he was willing to pay a great price for me. But he was old; his first wife was dead, likewise his second; even his youngest child was older than I. I said to my sister, 'This man is too old to give me children.' She answered, 'Be quiet. He will pay a big price for you.' I said, 'I do not love him,' but she closed her ears to every word of mine. And so it went on until the season of my marriage drew near.page 92
"Then, because I could no longer bear my grief, I went to my sister, crying, 'I will not marry that old man. Let your husband kill me rather.'
"She looked into my eyes and whispered, 'You are in love with someone else. Tell me the truth. Who is it?'
"I answered, weeping, 'I love Tangaro and I will marry only him.'
"She did not scold me, but took me in her arms, saying, 'Tangaro … alas! he is very poor. When did he dare to speak to you?'
" I told her the truth: he had never spoken to me; but I knew he loved me, for our eyes had spoken to each other. It happened in the maneaba [meeting house] of our village, when I was brought out of my seclusion to lead my coming-of-age dance."
She meant by her seclusion the twelve months of segregation in the twilight of a triple-screened house, which every highborn maiden used to undergo as soon as puberty came to her. Protected there from all sunrays and carefully massaged three times a day with cream of coconut flesh, her body was gradually blanched from olive brown to the clear velvet gold of a peach. This was done to bring her complexion as near as might be to that of her people's hero ancestors, the fair-skinned, blue-eyed race of Matang, Land of Heart's Desire behind the sunset. And, while her skin was being made as smooth and white as a garfish's (so ran the island simile) she was taught the intricate gestures of a sitting dance composed for her coming-out. It was a dance which she herself was to lead one night in the huge meeting house of her village, seated in the torch-glare under the scrutiny, poor mite, of a thousand critical eyes, out in front of a triple crescent of seasoned dancers who took their time from her.
I thought, as old Taaruru spoke, that the young Tangaro's eyes must have shown very importunately to find and hold hers in the tension of that high ordeal. "Bon te rine, ngaia! [The pick of mankind, he!]," I prompted her.page 93
She leaned forward to lay a hand on mine: "Somebody told you that? Yes, the very crest of the tree of beauty. No man was ever so beautiful or kind as Tangaro. My eyes saw only him that night. Every gesture of my dance was made for him." She laughed: "My sister's husband praised me at the end for the excellence of my kateikai [gestures]. That made me happy, for my heart said, 'What this man tells me here, Tangaro is thinking too, alone there in his canoe-shed.'
"But alas! though my sister's heart was sore for me, she feared her husband's anger and would do nothing to help. Time passed. The day set for my marriage was the first full moon of the season of Rimwimaata [The Scorpion]. It was very close when I made my last prayer, and my sister's patience ended, and she slapped me, crying, 'You little fool! You know nothing of love. You don't even know if Tangaro really loves you. Now be silent for ever!'
"I ran out among the trees. I did not weep. I said to myself, 'Nobody will help me. But if I were no longer a maiden, and that old man knew it, he would refuse to pay the bride-price for me.' I sat among the trees, thinking, 'Even if my sister's husband killed me for that, it would be better to die so than marry anyone but Tangaro.' I said to myself at last, 'So be it. Come what may, I will go quickly and ask Tangaro to spoil me for that old man. Then I shall die happy, all his.'
"I knew that he slept alone in his canoe-shed; most of the young men did so in those days. So, that same night, when everyone was asleep, I crept from the women's house and came through the bush to where he lay. I said only, 'Tangaro!' It was very dark, but he knew me. He whispered, 'I was sure you would come to me one night.' He took me in his arms and for a long time there was no talk between us. How wonderful, that! After so much longing to speak, no speech at all was all heart's fullness for us then.
"Then, with my head lying over his heart, I told him the whole of my thoughts. As I spoke, I heard his heartbeats race; page 94I knew his thought was one with mine; I said to myself, 'Let them kill me after this. I shall have belonged to him.'
"But when I had said my say, he was silent. He lay so long saying not a word that I cried, 'Tangaro, what is it?' Then, suddenly he sat up and pushed me away. His voice was angry when he spoke: 'Woman, you are mad! They will kill you if I do this thing to you.'
"So then I lied to him: 'Foolish Tangaro ! no one will kill me. My sister has promised to intercede for me. It is quite certain I shall not be killed. Now take me for your own, and after a while, when nobody is angry any more, you shall buy me with a small piece of land. This is the way to win happiness in the end.'
"He only laughed at that. 'You are the foolish one, not I. Why, I have nothing but two pieces of land—one big, one small—no price for a chief's daughter.' And when I told him that nothing would buy me once he had made me worthless, his anger came back: he shouted, 'You are mad, you are wicked.' So at last I was angry and shouted too: 'You do not love me. You wish only to see me married to that old man. You refuse me because you already desire another woman.' At that he began to tremble; I heard his voice shaking as he spoke: 'Woman, I will not do this thing. It would be your death. But go quickly now lest I kill you myself for words you did not mean. Hurry.'
"I ran away weeping. But see! when I came near the village dawn was breaking. The women were already at work among the trees. They all saw me as I ran. They called my name. I knew then that I was as good as dead already. Who would believe that I had crept out like a rat in the night to return a maid? But I was not afraid; I was glad; I wished for nothing but death. I only wanted to make sure of being killed before anyone discovered that I was still worth the old chief's bride-price.
"So I said to myself, 'I will run straight to the old man's house-place. I will shout my shame there first of all, so that his page 95people will try to catch and beat me. But I will escape from them and lead them to the house of my sister's husband. And we will all arrive at his door together. He will be so angry, he will kill me at once; and Tangaro will know that I chose death for love of him, and remember me with grief for ever.'
"Things fell out just as I had planned. I came to the old man's house-place. Men and women were standing round the house. I called to them from thirty paces off; I shouted, I screamed my shame. They ran towards me, crying angrily, 'Who did this thing to you?' I answered, 'A rat, but a better rat than your old chief,' and fled before anyone could take me.
"I led them to the house of my sister's husband. He stood outside. My sister and a crowd of people were gathered near him. They had been searching for me from before sunrise. Some people ran forward to hold me, crying, 'Alas! where have you been?' I shouted, 'I have been among the trees with my lover. He has loved me all night.' My sister's husband heard it. I called to him, 'Kill me now, for you will never get your bride-price.' Then the old man's people came running. They bawled, they screamed, they told of the shame I had done their chief. My sister's husband stood before me. He took my neck in his hands. 'Who is your lover?' I answered, 'A rat,' and spat in his face. He stopped my breath with his thumbs. A blackness rose up before my eyes. Then he let the breath come back. He said again, 'Who is your lover?' 'A rat, a rat'—I whispered, for my voice was sick. 'You die then,' he said and stopped my breath until the darkness closed over me.
"But behold now my sister, the brave, the tender-hearted! She sees me hanging from her husband's hands. I am nearly dead. She runs. She lies before him in the dust to make her prayer. Her head is between his feet. The head of a chief's daughter! His feet will trample it. How terrible that shame before the watching crowd—so terrible they hide their eyes; their hearts turn over for wonder and pity; they weep; they cry to her husband, 'Grant her prayer, we beg you, lest she page 96die for shame in the dust beneath your feet. Grant her the life of her sister.' And he, for pride of her love and shame of her shame, cannot deny her. His rage dies. He lets me fall to the ground. He lifts my sister, saying, 'It is enough. This woman lives. But take her out of my sight, for she is worthless.' And they carry me away to my house above the eastern beach.
"My sister was sitting beside me when I woke. 'Alas, Taaruru ! Why did you lie?'—these were her first words, and I knew she knew I had belonged to no lover. I was afraid. I tried to speak, but my voice was dead in my throat; I could only beg her with my lips, 'Don't tell, don't tell!' She took my hand in hers, saying, 'Sleep now. I will not tell.' She gave me water. My heart was at peace. I slept until the next day's sunset. And when I could speak, I told her how Tangaro had driven me away that night, and she wept with me saying, 'That is a noble heart! If only I too could have found such a husband.' And after that …"
The old woman paused for so long, smiling at her memories, I had to touch her arm: "And after that, Taaruru?"
She took my hand in hers: "After that there were goings and comings and whisperings in secret for a year and a month; but set all that aside; Tangaro bought me in the long run. He could have had me for nothing, for all the value my sister's husband put on me; but he said I was worth his big piece of land, and I said the land I had from my father was enough for both of us. My sister's husband was so pleased at that, he made a friend of Tangaro for life. And so, at last, we were all at peace together."
She fell silent again. I thought her tale was done and began to thank her, but she reproved me. "Patience! This is my sister's story as well as mine. There is better still to tell. Tangaro and I were able to repay her in the end for all her kindness. Her husband died before she had borne him a child. We took her into our house then, so that she and I could be Tangaro's wives together. What happiness for all of us in that page 97sharing! He gave her children of her own, for love of both of us, so that her sons were mine and mine were hers, and we were one in him forever, and he was undivided in us until he died."