The methodical Mr. Burr of Majuro
by Louis Becke
One day Ned Burr, a fellow trader, walked slowly up the path to mystation, and with a friendly nod sat down and watched intently as,with native assistance, I set about salting some pork. Ned livedthirty miles from my place, on a little island at the entrance to thelagoon. He was a prosperous man, and only drank under the pressure ofthe monotony caused by the non-arrival of a ship to buy his produce.He would then close his store, and, aided by a number of friendlymale natives start on a case of gin. But never a woman went into Ned's house, though many visited the store, where Ned bought theirproduce, paid for it in trade or cash, and sent them off, aftertreating them on a strictly business basis.
Now the Marshall Island women much resented this. Since Ned's wifehad died, ten years previously, the women, backed by the chiefs, hadmade most decided, but withal diplomatic, assaults upon his celibacy.The old men had respectfully reminded him that his state ofsingleness was a direct slight to themselves as leading men. If herefused to marry again he surely would not cast such a reflectionupon the personal characters of some two or three hundred young girlsas to refuse a few of them the position of honorary wives pro tem.,or until he found one whom he might think worthy of higher honours.But the slow-thinking, methodical trader only opened a bottle of gin,gave them fair words and a drink all round, and absolutely declinedto open any sort of matrimonial negotiations.
'I'm come to hev some talk with you when you've funshed saltin','he said, as he rose and meditatively prodded a junk of meat with his forefinger.
'Right, old man I said. 'I'll come now, and we went into the bigroom and sat down.
'Air ye game ter come and see me get married?' he asked, lookingaway past me, through the open door, to where the surf thundered andtumbled on the outer ree£
'Ned, I said, solemnly, 'I know you don'tjoke, so you must meanit. Of course I will. I'm sure all of us fellows will be delighted tohear you're going to get some nice little carajz1 to lighten up thatbig house of yours over there. Who's the girl, Ned?'
'Whew!' I said, 'why she's the daughter of the biggest chief onArhnu. I didn't think any white man could get her, even if he gaveher people a boat-load of dollars as a wedding-gift.'
'Well, no,' said Ned, stroking his beard meditatively, 'I supposeI should feel a bit set up; but two years ago her people said that,because I stood to them in the matter of some rifles when they hadtrouble with King Jibberick, I could take her. She was rather youngthen, any way, but I've been over to Arhnu several times, and I'vehad spies out, and damn me if I ever could hear a whisper againsther. I'm told for sure that her father and uncles would ha'e killedanyone that came after her. So In'm a-goin to take her and chanceit.'
Ned, I said, 'you know your own affairs and these people betterthan I do. Yet are you really going to pin your faith on a MarshallIsland girl? You are not like any of us traders. You see, we knowwhat to expect sometimes, and our morals are a lot worse than thoseof the natives. And it doesn't harrow our feelings much if any one ofus has to divorce a wife and get another; it only means a lot of newdresses and some guzzling, drinking, and speechifying, and somebother in teaching the new wife how to make bread. But your wife thatdied was a Manhikian&emdash;another kind. They don't breed that sorthere in the Marshalls. Think of it twice, Ned, before you marry her.'
The girl was a beauty. There are many like her in that far-awaycluster of coral atolls. That she was a chief's child it was easy tosee; the abject manner in which the commoner natives always behavedthemselves in her presence showed their respect for Le-jennabon. Ofcourse we all got very jolly. There were half a dozen of us tradersthere, and we were, for a wonder, all on friendly terms. Le-jennabonsat on a fine mat in the big room, and in a sweetly dignified mannerreceived the wedding gifts. One of our number, Charlie de Buis,though in a state of chronic poverty, induced by steadfast adherenceto square gin at five dollars a case, made his offerings&emdash;agold locket covering a woman's miniature, a heavy gold ring, and apair of fat cross-bred Muscovy ducks. The bride accepted them with asmile.
'Who is this?' she asked, looking at the portrait your whitewife?'
'No,' replied the bashful Charles, 'another man's. That's why Igave it away, curse her. But the ducks I bred myself on Majuru.'
A month or two passed. Then, on one Sunday afternoon, about dusk,I saw Ned's whale-boat coming over across the lagoon. I met him onthe beach. Trouble was in his face, yet his hard, impassive featureswere such that only those who knew him well could discover it.Instead of entering the house he silently motioned me to come furtheralong the sand, where we reached an open spot clear of coconuts. Nedsat down and filled his pipe. I waited patiently. The wind had diedaway, and the soft swish and swirl of the tide as the ripples lappedthe beach was the only sound that broke upon the silence of thenight.
'You were right. But it doesn't matter now..... He laughed softly.'A week ago a canoe-party arrived from Ebon. There were two chiefs.Of course they came to my house to trade. They had plenty of money.There were about a hundred natives belonging to them. The younger manwas chief of Likieb&emdash;a flash buck. The first day he sawLe-jennabon he had a lot too much to say to her. I watched him. Nextmorning my toddy-cutter came and told me that the flash young chieffrom Likieb had stuck him up and drunk my toddy, and had saidsomething about my wife&emdash;you know how they talk in parableswhen they mean mischie£ I would have shot him for the toddyracket, but I was waitin' for a better reason.... The old hag whobosses my cook-shed said to me as she passed, "Go and listen to asong of cunning over there" pointing to a clump of bread-fruit trees.I walked overquietly. Le-jennabon and her girls were sitting down onmats. Outside the fence was a lad singing this-in a low voice:
"Marriage hides the tricks of lovers,"
Le-jennabon and the girls bent their heads and said nothing. Thenthe devil's imp commenced again:
"Marriage hides the tricks of lovers,"
Some of the girls laughed and whispered to Le-ennabon. She shookher head, and looked around timorously. Plain enough, wasn't it?Presently the boy crept up to the fence, and dropped over a wreath ofyellow blossoms. The girls laughed. One of them picked it up, andoffered it to Le-jennabon. She waved it away. Then, again, the cuboutside sang softly:
"Marriage hides the tricks of lovers,"
and they all laughed again, and Le-jennabon put the wreath on herhead, mid I saw the brown hide of the boy disappear among the trees.
'I went back to the house. I wanted to make certain she wouldfollow the boy first. After a few minutes some of Le-jennabon's womencame to me, and said they were going to the weather side&emdash;it'snarrer across, as you know&emdash;to pick flowers. I said all right,to go, as I was going to do something else, so couldn't come. Then Iwent to the trade-room and got what I wanted. The old cook-hag showedme the way they had gone, and grinned when she saw what I had sliddown inside my pyjamas. I cut round and got to the place. I had aright good idea where it was.
'The girls soon came along the path, and then stopped and talkedto Le-jennabon and pointed to a clump of bread-fruit trees standingin an arrowroot-patch. She seemed frightened-but went. Half-waythrough she stopped, and then I saw my beauty raise his head from theground and march over to her. I jest giv' him time ter enjoy a smile,and then I stepped out and toppled him over. Right through hiscarcase&emdash;them Sharp's rifles make a hole you could put yourfist into.
'The girl dropped too&emdash;sheer funk. Old Lebauro, the cook,slid through the trees and stood over him, and said, "U, guk' He's afine-made man," and gave me her knife; and then I collaredLe-jennabon and&emdash;
'For God's sake, Ned, don't tell me you killed her too!' He shookhis head slowly.
'No, I couldn't hurt her. But I held her with one hand, shefeeling dead and cold, like a wet deck-swab; then the old cook-womanundid my flash man's long hair, and, twining her skinny old claws init, pulled it taut, while I sawed at the chap's neck with my righthand. The knife was heavy and sharp, and I soon got the job through.Then I gave the thing to Le-jennabon to carry.
'I made her walk in front of me. Every time she dropped the head Islewed her round and made her lift it up again. And the oldcook-devil trotted astern o' us. When we came close to the town Isays to Le-jennabon:
"'Do you want to live?"
"Yes," says she in a voice like a whisper.
"'Then sing," says I, "sing loud&emdash;
"marriage hides the tricks of lovers,"
And she sang it in a choky kind of quaver.
'There was a great rush of people to see the procession. Theystood in a line on both sides of the path and stared and saidnothin'.
'Presently we comes to where all the Likieb chief's people werequartered. They knew the head and ran back for their rifles, but mycrowd inthe village was too strong, and, o'course, sided with me, andtook away their guns. Then the crowd gathers round my place, and Imakes Le-jennabon hold up the head and sing again&emdash;sing thatdevil's chant.
"'Listen," I says to the people, "listen to my wife singing alove-song." Then I takes the thing wet and bloody, and slings it intothe middle of the Likieb people, and gave Le-ennabon a shove and senther inside.'
I was thinking what would be the best thing to say, and could onlymanage 'It's a bad business, Ned.'
'Bad! That's where you're wrong,' and, rising, Ned brushed thesand off the legs of his pyjamas. 'It's just about the luckiest thingas could ha' happened. Ye see, it's given Le-jennabon a good idea ofwhat may happen to her if she ain't mighty correct. An' it's riz me alot in the esteem of the people generally as a man who hez businessprinciples.'
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