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Return to the Islands

The Thank-Offering

The Thank-Offering

As a rule it was only when a husband suspected his wife of unfaithfulness that he took a knife to her admirer. But Terara's jealousy went a step beyond that. Though he knew perfectly well that his exquisite, shy South-Wind loved him with all her heart (he admitted as much at the trial) he could not resist page 119having a stab at Aimoa for merely making sheep's eyes at her. Aimoa nearly died of it and Terara was lucky to get off with only a year's hard labour.

The trial took place on Kuria Island, where the two young, men and others—all of Tabiteuea—were working under indenture for old George Murdoch. But Terara couldn't be held in the local calaboose, because the only gaols authorized to take in long-term prisoners were those at district headquarters. I was bound to take him with me to Abemama (for that was in 1917, when I was district officer, Central and Southern Gilberts) and this brought up the question of poor little South-Wind. She begged not to be sent back alone to Tabiteuea. Not that she was afraid of her natural guardians, Terara's mother and sister, she said; she knew they would be very kind to her; but Terara, in prison all those hundreds of miles away at Abemama, would die every day anew of grief and jealousy, wondering, wondering what she was up to out of his sight; and she herself would die for thinking of his misery and pain. Couldn't I possibly manage to find some job for her at Abemama, so that she could at least show herself to him every day?

As it happened, my station sergeant Rota had just married a wife much younger than himself and was only too glad to find a nice companion for her, rationed by government, against the times when he had to go on tour with me. So we took South-Wind in with us, and she was a tremendous success all round at Abemama. Mrs. Rota loved her at first sight, and so did the wife of the warder of the men's gaol, which was even more important. She was allowed to sit in the warder's house every morning at six o'clock, to smile at Terara as he passed out of the prison yard with his working party. This and the usual visits allowed by law seemed to keep him very happy about her, for he sang and laughed all day at his work with the most carefree of his fellow boarders.

About a quarter-way through his term, he came to my office for a private talk. It appeared that he thought himself page 120indebted to me for everything Rota and his wife were doing to keep South-Wind happy. It had been on his mind for a long time, he said, and he wanted her to start getting level with the account as quickly as possible. With 100 per cent good conduct marks, he would be out in six months or so. Wasn't there some regular job of sweeping or scrubbing or sewing that I could give her to do for no pay in the meantime, so that he could be sure she was at least earning her board and keep with us? People had their pride, after all.

So South-Wind, a glowing wisp of loveliness no bigger than an elf, became cook's mate, yard girl, scullery maid, washerwoman's help, waitress, sewing maid, and despatch runner in our establishment (Olivia was with me in those days) and very efficient she was in every department. Only, we couldn't swallow Terara's notion of her doing it all for nothing and, as she raised no personal objection whatever, we gave her the princely wage of five shillings a week plus, of course, the run of her shining teeth in our larder.

She, wise child, told Terara nothing about the pay packet until he walked, a free man, out of the prison and into the warder's house, where she was waiting for him. She had to tell him then, to explain how she came by the magnificent pile of gifts—a new pipe, fifty sticks of tobacco, a brush and comb, a safety razor, a bottle of hair oil, two pounds of fish line, a mouth organ, a tin of boiled sweets, a flaming orange waistcloth length, and I don't know what-not else—that she had set on the mat for his sweeter welcome back into her arms. All but a few shillings of her wages had gone on them, and £6 had a lot of buying power in those days.

We gave them a house in the police lines and found a paid job for Terara in the station carpenter's shop until we could ship them back to Tabiteuea. All this was pure routine; we did the same for every discharged prisoner awaiting repatriation; but Terara had his own views about it: I simply couldn't get the idea out of his head that he owed everything to me. He would come along to see me, bringing South-Wind with page 121him, three or four evenings a week, and every time he would harp on the depth of his indebtedness. I liked his visits very much; he was one of those rare Christians of the younger generation who refused to see shame in the traditions of his pagan ancestors; but I did find his misplaced gratitude infinitely tedious, and at last I couldn't resist telling him so.

I was sorry at once that I had spoken. I could see from the silent look he gave me that he was badly hurt. All he did for reply was to take my hand, lay it palm down on his bent head and say, "You are my father; I am he who lives in your hand. So be it here, where I am a stranger; but it shall be different at Tabiteuea, lest I be shamed forever." They left at once and I did not see them again until we were all aboard the schooner Motau, southward bound for Tabiteuea, via the islands.

A couple of nights out, both of them and Rota and I were together on the foredeck. Sprawled on our mats, looking up at the mastheads dancing among the stars while we drank great draughts of the milk-white wine of the moonlight, we talked from the depths of silver peace that only the moondrunk know, of ghosts we had seen, and mysteries wondered at, and strange things heard report of out of the enchanted past. It didn't strike me as a bit out of place, therefore, when Terara started to tell Rota of a marvellous dream he had had just before leaving Tarawa. It was a dream of a shining white frigate-bird, surpassingly beautiful, that had flown down from the sun and settled on his breast. Happiness like a surge of the ocean had swept through his heart at that, he said, and he had cried aloud to the bird, " O chief from the sun, you have come down from your height to me, who am nothing. I threw away all I had and ran upon death; you saved me and gave me back my happiness. Now, before you leave me never to return, accept from my hand one token of love and thanks beyond words. So, I shall be forever free of a debtor's shame in remembering your loving-kindness."

I did realize before he finished that it hadn't been a real dream at all. He was simply back on the hobby-horse of his page 122perishing gratitude, and I in person was this paragon of a bird he had been burbling about. I should probably have said something pettish had not Rota, to my surprise, turned on the anger instead of me. He started to go bald-headed for Terara, calling him insolent, and shameless, and pagan, and half-a-dozen other names for daring to talk like that before the Man of Matang. He was so rude, I had to protest at last, "But, Rota, there was nothing insolent or shameless in what Terara said. You're being very silly. Dry up and I'll talk for myself if you don't mind."

Turning to Terara then, I tried to comfort him: "I shall be staying tomorrow night at Nukunau. Come ashore and see me in the evening, and we'll think together of something you can do for me. Bring South-Wind with you." Having said which, I got up and went to bed before either could speak another word.

Rota was sulky all day at the Nukunau rest house, especially when, after my evening meal, he came to take orders for the next morning. He practically ran out of the room without saluting as soon as my cook-boy came in to spread a guest mat at my feet as I sat in a squatter's chair and to tell me that Terara and South-Wind had arrived.

Poor South-Wind was a sad sight when they appeared, her lovely little golden body all dolled up and extinguished in the frilled horror of a mission-school Mother Hubbard. But it was high ceremonial dress in the southern islands; she had clearly put it on in my honour and I did manage to say something nice about it. I thought it was her pleasure at the compliment that made her more demonstrative than I had ever before seen her. Instead of sitting down on the guest mat to face me with Terara, she sank to the floor by my feet, facing the guest mat, her right cheek resting like a child's against my knee. I must say I liked it a lot. But, remembering her husband's over-jealous knife, I couldn't help hoping hard that he trusted me as much as she did. And then I noticed that he was still standing.

Before I could bid him be seated, he stepped forward and page 123 Bird on windswept beachpage 124laid a wreath of white uri blossoms on South-Wind's head. "I leave this woman in your hand tonight. Let her loving-kindness be to you the measure of my gratitude," he murmured, smiling serenely down on both of us. I was still gaping at that when he added, "For twenty days I have slept apart from her, so that she might come to you without shame."

I sat cursing myself for a fool. This was the token of love and thanks he had meant the night before. No wonder Rota had been scandalized. But how could I turn and rend him now after inviting him to bring South-Wind ashore to me? He couldn't possibly have guessed that I hadn't meant it this way. Besides, now I understood his offer, I couldn't agree with Rota: I still could see no insolence in it—nothing indeed but a gesture of regard that wrung me with its generosity. My mind groped desperately for some way of refusing that might not smash his pride.

But all my clumsy talk of the difference between his people's customs and ours seemed to leave him more and more crest-fallen. I could not arrive at convincing him that my rejection of his most precious gift was due to no fault in himself or her. I don't know how I should ever have comforted him without enlisting South-Wind's help. She had sat silent throughout, her cheek still against my knee, her right arm crooked around my calves. I think the contact must have enabled the passage of an inspiration from her to me, for I was somehow certain of her answer when I said, "Tell us the truth, South-Wind, tell us nothing but the truth: did you in your own heart really want this thing?"

She turned her head and laughed up in my face: "Not I," she replied, then looked across at Terara accusingly and added, "That man knows I did not want it. I said to him, 'If you must send me to another man, why must it be a white man?' I also said, 'This white man is not like a frigate-bird but a …"

Before she got the word out, Terara sprang forward with an indignant bellow and clapped his hand over her mouth. I never found out what she was going to say, but Terara knew, page 125and her rejection of me to my face, so much more outspoken than mine of her, seemed to inspire him all at once with renewed self-respect. He raised her to her feet, laughed down at me with the air of a man rid of a burden, picked her up in his arms, pagan fashion, as if she were a bride new-wed to be carried across his threshold, and ran out with her into the flaming moonlight. A minute later I heard Rota hoot with laughter from the kitchen. There were no more puritanical sulks from him the next morning.