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Return to the Islands

6 — —

page 109

Flying fish

Defenders of the Faithless

It might well seem that the government's treatment of ordinary conjugal unfaithfulness, from the beginning, as a criminal offence instead of a civil wrong was just another piece of imperial arrogance as destructive as the banning of polygamy. But it didn't work out quite that way. The pagans approved of this particular dispensation as strongly as the Christian authorities did in the early days of British rule. Their argument started from the premise that death was the only proper sanction for 'rat's love'—except, of course, where the wronged husband allowed the seducer to comfort him with a large piece of real estate instead. The law having banned both private executions and expropriations of land for adultery, the least it could do now in the name of public decency, they said, was to prescribe heavy sentences of imprisonment for people who behaved like rodents.

I hesitate to claim that this excellent reasoning really counted for much in Downing Street. Nevertheless, the real motive behind the law was not entirely reasonless. The average villager, whether Christian or pagan, was apt to swing a very fast hatchet at a faithless wife and her seducer. Until his first page 110anger cooled, the island lock-up was the only safe refuge for the erring couple. There is not a shadow of doubt that within, say, the first thirty years of British rule, the summary imprisonment of the over-adventurous saved many hundreds of enraged husbands from committing murder and, in consequence, just about twice their number of guilty parties from figuring as sudden corpses on the beaches of their islands.

But though this life-saving, murder-preventing policy, considered in vacuo, was its own complete justification, the trouble in real life was that our prisons were handicapped as corrective institutions by having to administer only the puny punishments allowed by British regulations. In the result, the law succeeded in robbing adultery of all its ancient terrors without providing anything like an effective new deterrent for those inclined to stumble. As a contribution towards the 'improvement' of national sex morals it was, in fact, like the law which enforced monogamy, a failure.

Sex and the Sabbath

The chaos of conflict between the new and the old moralities, enlivened by doctrinal squabbles between members of the warring Christian sects, was apt to throw up some original ideas as to the comparative gravity of sex offences in relation to other sins of importance in the Christian calendar. I shall never forget the one put forward by a cheerful young woman of the highly indoctrinated island of Beru. We met, when I was still young in my service, at a monthly session of her island court, she on her trial for a third act of unfaithfulness to her equally inconstant but still very jealous husband (who was there to give evidence against her) and I in attendance to watch her defence. She was likely to get as much as six months this time, unless mitigating circumstances could be clearly shown.

Things began to go badly for her as soon as she had been found guilty and it was time to consider the sentence. The page 111Native Magistrate asked her, idiotically enough, why she had committed her offence with the co-respondent, and she shocked everyone to the marrow by replying, as simply as a child teaching a smaller child, "Nao [Sir], because I love him," and laughing for the robust joy of it in his face. The husband shouted, "Alas! you see the sort of slut she is!" And then, for climax, it came out that every one of her three offences had been committed on a Sunday.

The court-house rustled with horror and delight. I had no real hope left of helping her after that. But I wanted to keep her talking, just in case. So I observed—with reference to the despotic Sabbatarianism of the Southern Gilberts in general— that the Tempter always would find mischief for idle hands to do.

It wasn't a popular remark. I felt some of the court's disfavour being immediately deflected from her to myself; it was clear from her looks that even she felt I had said something pretty shocking. I decided to plug away at the idea nevertheless, and went on to recommend a bit of sewing or other useful work as an infallible defence against temptation, whatever the day.

She had managed to listen in silence so far, but this beat her: "Sir!" she burst out, forgetful of all but her moral indignation. "You must know as well as I do that it is a deadly sin to work on the Sabbath !"

Both the court and the audience practically roared their approval of the snub. On my own defence now, I pointed out rather sheepishly that, after all, the other thing was a sin too. But not a breach of the third commandment, they told me with heat—only a breach of the seventh. It was a far, far better thing she had done, in fine, than the thing I had suggested she ought to have done, and she got off with three months on the strength of it. The only party who finished really annoyed was her husband.

page 112

Forgiving Sinner

Poor pretty Marina of Tarawa found that not even the walls of our central prison made sanctuary enough, back in 1916, to save the tip of her impudent nose from amputation. The government's extreme poverty was the real root of her trouble: we simply could not afford big prison staffs in those days. It followed that our cheerful brown wrongdoers roamed the government station from sun-up to sundown doing outside chores almost wholly unguarded. Not that they disliked their all-but-freedom under the whispering palms; but it suited Marina's husband too well: he had only to stroll into the station and spy long enough from behind some bush to see exactly when she separated herself from her working-party.

She had been set to weed a path by my office the morning he chose to strike. But a sister of hers from the village had kindly dropped a pipe of tobacco and matches beside her as she worked, and what could a poor girl do then but fall to the temptation. She grabbed her contraband treasure and made for the seclusion of a clump of flowering uri-trees fifty yards from the office.

I don't know how long she had enjoyed her smoke in the scented shadows before he was upon her. It was her rending screams that first brought me and the office staff rushing into the picture. We found her lying in a welter of blood under the uri-trees, her cotton jumper off and held against her face. "Bairiu! Bairiu! (My nose! My nose!)" she was moaning as I knelt on the sand beside her.

Not to put too fine a point on it (if I may use that expression here) the tip of her nose was gone. Her husband had bitten it off. It was one of the things short of murder that jealous husbands sometimes did to fickle wives—an absurdity and a horror grossly compounded. But it did not spell tragedy for a heart as stout as Marina's. Even in the extremity of grief for her broken beauty, she lost neither her head nor her humour. page 113"He spat it out at me before he ran off, saying, 'Do what you like with that!'" she told us with a faint giggle, as she stood up and walked off to hospital. "Perhaps, if you can find it now, Doctor Sowani will sew it on again, and it will stick, and that man will be somewhat disappointed."

None of us had the smallest hope of any such miracle for her, but we did start a search and presently someone found the piteous fragment. Within half an hour the doctor—or, rather, Chief Native Medical Practitioner Sowani, the mainstay of Tarawa hospital and trusted friend of all the islands—had it back in its place again. Yes, and, by heaven! Nei Marina's gallant faith in him proved utterly justified. I don't know whether he sewed it on or merely used adhesive tape, but it did most gloriously stick.

The nose came out of hospital slightly changed in shape, but what it had lost in academic beauty, it turned out to have gained a hundred times over in glamour. It became the first wonder of Tarawa. Visitors from all the group came to look at it. A number of young men offered to marry it. But, as she pointed out, the repaired job still belonged to her husband. He hadn't started divorce proceedings and she certainly didn't intend to take any against him, she said.

I had a long private talk with her shortly before her husband was brought to trial for malicious wounding. She was by then passionately against the idea of a prosecution. I like to dwell on this part of the story. Her argument was that he would never have been tempted to bite her nose off but for her initial unfaithfulness. Therefore she herself, not he, was the one to blame for the whole thing. And now that he was good enough to want her back, unclean, self-spoiled thing that she was, why should the law come butting in to punish him?

Well … who was a district officer to interfere with a wife's conscience or call her generous constancy in question? I didn't try to do so, but pointed out instead, that she herself was, so far, the only known witness against her husband. He had been found innocently working on his own land after the assault. page 114This evidently stuck in her mind because, when he came to trial before the Native Court, she testified on oath that she hadn't really seen the man who had bitten her and hadn't recognized his voice either. As nobody could catch her out, and her previous allegations had been quite informal, and the accused had a copper-bottomed alibi anyhow, he left the court without a stain on his character. It was rank perjury all round—I haven't a doubt of it; but, legal quibbling apart, what is ultimate truth? Nobody knows for sure, but people have visions of it and Nei Marina clearly valued hers higher than a bite in the nose. Perhaps she confounded it in her poor simple heart with such things as love, and love again with such things as humility and forgiveness. But I can't swear to that. What I can vouch for is that it led her back to her man. She and he lived very happily together from that time on.

No Pagan Hanky-Panky

It is worth a man's while to remember now that erring wives did not entirely monopolize the Gilbertese market for generosity: not, at least, at Tarawa in 1916. There was Taratake, for example, a much wronged husband. Taratake knew of his own goodness that, only given time to cool down, he could condone practically any slip of Laughter-of-Waves, his wife. So he brought her to my office one day, saying, "Kurimbo, this woman has sinned. She has already deceived me twice before, and I have forgiven her. I love her greatly, as all men know, and I wish to pardon her again in the end; but I fear I shall strangle her this time unless you lock her away from my anger for at least six months."

I asked Laughter-of-Waves if the proposal struck her as reasonable. It did, she said. She didn't want to be strangled; besides which, both she and her partner in crime were sorry for what they had done and eager to afford Taratake the solace page 115of an official expiation. I accordingly recommended the two offenders to the favourable consideration of the Native Court, which obliged all of us by sending them to prison for six months each.

Taratake's only real fault after that was too much forgiveness. Yet can there ever be too much? And then, who but a complete saint could have turned a blind eye to the interior weakness of our penal organization? The colony was desperately poor. Big prison staffs were entirely out of the question. We were happy indeed, in the circumstances, if our criminal gentlefolk were tactful enough to keep their breaches of discipline decently hidden and beyond that, willing, when they chose to sing at night, not to bawl themselves quite hoarse.

Taratake had once done a year in the central prison at Tarawa (I forget what for) and he knew much more than I did about its interior possibilities. This valuable experience, plus his wife's clever use of the latitude allowed for midnight song, plus the happy accident that the women's wardress was his father's sister, enabled him to organize the sort of reconciliation that his generous heart ached for.

I only began to learn the facts when Laughter-of-Waves had been released from prison for some months, and I heard that she had given birth to a fine son. That was pleasant news in itself, but a question of time rather puzzled me. The prison records said that she had been discharged just five months and three weeks previously after serving her full sentence of six months. It made strange biological arithmetic for the cloistered seclusion of a female prison, unless one believed in spontaneous generation. I asked them to come and have a private chat with me. The baby came with them.

Our opening talk was about a virgin known to Gilbertese mythology as Nei Matamona, who—so the story ran—had once upon a time been visited by a sunbeam as she lay basking in a solitary pool, and so became the mother of that mighty sun-hero Bue. But Taratake said No: as a Christian (though his wife was a pagan) he couldn't approve of Nei Matamona's page 116methods and didn't, in any case, believe things happened that way nowadays. There was clearly nothing to do then but apologize to him at once, on behalf of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, for what had happened to Laughter-of-Waves in the female lock-up and congratulate him, in the name of humanity, for his generous readiness to father an interloper's child.

This was, however, more than a virtuous mother could take in silence. Laughter-of-Waves spent the next ten minutes forcing me with floods of indignant tears, to note the astounding resemblances between her baby and his father. All that time, Taratake sat with an arm round her waist, nodding his head at every point she made and shaking it with such reproachful eyes at me that I felt lower than a worm. But I did want all the facts, if only for the appraisal of my own gullability, and presently they came tumbling out.

It appeared, to begin with, that Laughter-of-Waves was a most accomplished sorceress. Her spells, she claimed, had twice won Taratake's instant pardon for her wilful ways; it was therefore only natural to turn to them again for help in prison. She didn't want him throwing eyes at other women while she was locked up; wasn't she right in that, she asked. I had to admit I thought she probably was, and was glad to hear from her then that the gaol wardress, Taratake's aunt, had held absolutely the same opinion.

It was this aunt who had obtained from him a few strands of his hair for the right kind of spellbinding and had also provided matches for burning them at the right ritual moment. Laughter-of-Waves herself had organized the community singing. "Do you remember," she reproached me, "you once sent your cook over to us three nights running, to beg us not to sing like lunatics? You see, everyone had to sing loud. Otherwise, they would have heard the words of my spell, and it wouldn't have worked." She was good enough, after hearing my expressions of regret, to let me have the words in question. Here is the slightly expurgated English rendering of them:

page 117

Mr. Hair-of-his-head, Mr. Hair-of-his-head,
Go you to him, to Taratake!
Whisper my name when he dreams, when he wakes,
When he walks among the women.
Draw him by the hand,
Draw him by the foot,
Draw him by the heart and entrails to me.

He thinks only of me;
He dies for love of me;
There is no woman for him but me, no love but mine, no love-making but mine.
He comes to me, he comes, he is here with me,
With me, Laughter-of-Waves-o-o-o!

The burning of a single hair at the end was enough to speed the indwelling spirit on its way.

I don't know how it strikes you, but I thought it pretty natural, that, after three performances of a ritual like that, Taratake should have started dreaming of his wife—especially as he knew from his helpful aunt exactly when the series began and ended. The third performance completed, he said, he had allowed Mr. Hair-of-his-head one night to come and draw him by the hand, a second to do the same by his foot, and a third to deal with his heart and entrails. "But, Taratake," I ventured to protest at this point, "you're a Christian! You can't go playing about with pagan spirits like that, you know." The dignified reproof in his answer left me sorry I had spoken: "Sir, you have forgotten that it was my own hair. The spirit of it was as Christian as I am myself."

So, on the fourth night, the spirit led him to the wardress's quarters in the gaol yard. It was easy going after that, because another spell known to Laughter-of-Waves held his aunt bound to her mat in a miraculous sleep. This again was, religiously speaking, blameless. She was a Christian like himself and had given the sorceress some of her own eyelashes for page 118the sleep ritual, so as to make sure there was no hanky-panky with pagan spirits. Comforted beyond measure by this thought, he took the key she had carelessly left by a lighted hurricane lamp and pressed serenely on with his mission of forgiveness into the female lock-up.

Everything was ready for him there. The other lady inmates had plaited garlands of perfumed flowers to hang about the room. They lay now, magicked asleep, on the concrete floor. They had to be on the floor, because their wooden pallets were needed to make the little cubicle where his beloved awaited his forgiveness. But what could hard lying matter to them, who slept so fast and dreamed so deep, maybe, of love fulfilled in the scented darkness?

"And how many times did they have to be magicked altogether?" I asked Laughter-of-Waves when all was told.

"Only six," she replied. "You see, it was difficult. We started the night you left on a visit to Abaiang and finished the night before you came back. You wander round the station a lot at night, and we didn't want to hurt you."

I was grateful for their tender feelings. For the rest, what was to be done? One can't wheedle confessions from one's parishioners only to put the dogs of justice on their tracks. So I asked them weakly what their idea of a fair thing was. They had it all ready: "We thought," said Taratake, "that it would be nice if we called our son Kurimbo, after you." I looked at the brat. He really was rather a nice baby. I was proud to be his sponsor.

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.