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Title: PÔkia (1901)
Author: Louis Becke

From "The Tapu Of Banderah and Other Stories"




Late one evening, when the native village was wrapped in slumber, Temana
and I brought our sleeping-mats down to the boat-shed, and spread them
upon the white, clinking sand. For here, out upon the open beach, we
could feel a breath of the cooling sea-breeze, denied to the village
houses by reason of the thick belt of palms which encompassed them on
three sides. And then we were away from Malepa's baby, which was a good
thing in itself.

Temana, tall, smooth-limbed, and brown-skinned, was an excellent savage,
and mine own good friend. He and his wife Malepa lived with me as a sort
of foster-father and mother, though their united ages did not reach mine
by a year or two.

When Malepa's first baby was born, she and her youthful husband
apologised sincerely for the offence against my comfort, and with many
tears prepared to leave my service. But although I was agreeable to let
Malepa and her little bundle of red-skinned wrinkles go, I could not
part with Temana, so I bade her stay. She promised not to let the baby
cry o' nights. Poor soul. She tried her best; but every night--or rather
towards daylight--that terrible infant would raise its fearsome voice,
and wail like a foghorn in mortal agony.

We lit our pipes and lay back watching a moon of silvered steel poised
'midships in a cloudless sky. Before us, unbroken in its wide expanse,
save for two miniature islets near the eastern horn of the encircling
reef, the glassy surface of the sleeping lagoon was beginning to quiver
and throb to the muffled call of the outer ocean; for the tide was about
to turn, and soon the brimming waters would sink inch by inch, and
foot by foot from the hard, white sand, and with strange swirlings and
bubblings and mighty eddyings go tearing through the narrow passage at
eight knots an hour.

Presently we heard a footfall upon the path which led to the boat-shed,
and then an old man, naked but for his _titi_, or waist-girdle of grass,
came out into the moonlight, and greeted us in a quavering, cracked
voice.

"_Aue!_ white man, my dear friend. So thou and Temana sit here in the
moonlight!"

"Even so, PÓkfa, most excellent and good old man. Sit ye here beside us.
Nay, not there, but here on mine own mat. So. Hast thy pipe with thee?"

The ancient chuckled, and his wrinkled old face beamed as he untwisted a
black and stumpy clay from his perforated and pendulous ear-lobe, which
hung full down upon his shoulder, and, turning it upside down, tapped
the palm of his left hand with it.

"See!" he said, with another wheezing, half-whispered, half-strangled
laugh, "see and hear the emptiness thereof! Nothing has been in its
belly since cockcrow. And until now have I hungered for a smoke. Twice
did I think to come to thee to-day and ask thee for _kaitalafu_ (credit)
for five sticks of tobacco, but I said to my pipe, 'Nay, let us wait
till night time.' For see, friend of my heart, there are ever greedy
eyes which watch the coming and going of a poor old man; and had I
gotten the good God-given tobacco from thee by daylight, friends would
arise all around me as I passed through the village to my house. And
then, lo, the five sticks would become but one!"

"PÔkia," I said in English, as I gave him a piece of tobacco and my
knife, "you are a philosopher."

He stopped suddenly, and placing one hand on my knee, looked wistfully
into my face, as an inquiring child looks into the eyes of its mother.

"Tell me, what is that?"

I tried to find a synonym. "It means that you are a _tagata poto_--a
wise man."

The old, brown, bald head nodded, and the dark, merry eyes danced.

"Aye, aye. Old I may be, and useless, but I have lived--I have lived.
And though when I am dead my children and grandchildren will make a
_tagi_ over me, I shall laugh, for I know that of one hundred tears,
ninety and nine will be for the tobacco and the biscuit and the rice
that with me will vanish!"

He filled and lit his pipe, and then, raising one skinny, tattooed arm,
pointed to the moon.

"Hast such a moon as that in _papalagi_ land?"

"Sometimes."

"Aye, sometimes. But not always. No, not always. I know, I know. See, my
friend; let us talk. I am full of talk to-night. You are a good man, and
I, old PÔkfa, have seen many things. Aye, many things and many lands.
Aye, I, who am now old and toothless, and without oil in my knees and my
elbows, can talk to you in two tongues besides my own.... Temana!"

"_Oi_, good father PÔkia."

"Go away. The white man and I would talk."

I placed my hand on the bald head of the ancient "Temana shall go to the
house and bring us a bottle of grog. We will drink, and then you shall
talk. I am one who would learn."

The old man took my hand and patted it "Yes, let us talk to-night And
let us drink grog. Grog is good to drink, sometimes. Sometimes it is
bad to drink. It is bad to drink when the swift blood of youth is in our
veins and a hot word calls to a sharp knife. Ah! I have seen it! Listen!
Dost hear the rush of the lagoon waters through the passage? That is the
quick, hot blood of youth, when it is stirred by grog and passion, and
the soft touch of a woman's bosom. I know it I know it. But let Temana
bring the bottle. I am not afraid to drink grog with _thee_, Ah, thou
art not like some white men. Thou can'st drink, and give some to a poor
old man, and if prying eyes and babbling tongues make mischief, and the
missionary sends thee a _tusi_ (letter), and says 'This drinking of grog
by PÔkia is wrong,' thou sendest him a letter, saying, 'True, O teacher
of the Gospel. This drinking of grog is very wrong. Wherefore do I send
thee three dollars for the school, and ask thy mercy for old PÔkfa, who
was my guest.'"

I slapped the ancient on his withered old back.

"To-night ye shall drink as much grog as ye like, PÔkfa. The missionary
is a good man, and will not heed foolish talk."

PÔkfa shook his head. "Mareko is a Samoan. He thinketh much of himself
because he hath been to Sini (Sydney) and stood before many white
gentlemen and ladies, and told them about these islands. He is a vain
fool, though a great man here in Nukufetau, but in Livapoola{*} he would
be but as a pig. Livapoola is a very beautiful place, full of beautiful
women. Ah! you laugh.... I am bent and old now, and my bones rattle
under my skin like pebbles in a gourd. Then I was young and strong.
Listen! I was a boat-steerer for three years on a London whaleship. I
have fought in the wars of Chile and Peru. I can tell you many things,
and you will understand.... I have seen many lands."

Temana returned with a bottle of brandy, a gourd of water, and three
cups.

"Drink this, PÔkfa, _taka ta-ina_{**} And talk. Your talk is good to
hear. And I can understand."

     * Liverpool.

     **Lit, dear crony.

He drank the liquor neat, and then washed it down with a cupful of
water.

"_Tapa!_ Ah, the good, sweet grog! And see, above us is the round moon,
and here be we three. We three--two young and strong, one whose blood
is getting cold. Ah, I will talk, and this boy, Temana, will learn that
PÔkia is no boasting old liar, but a true man." Then, suddenly dropping
the Nukufetau dialect in which he had hitherto spoken, he said quietly
in English--

"I told you I could speak other languages beside my own. It is true, for
I can talk English and Spanish." Then he went back into native: "But
I am not a vain old man. These people here are fools. They think that
because on Sundays they dress like white men and go to church five times
in one day, and can read and write in Samoan, that they are as clever
as white men. Bah! they are fools, fools! Where are the strong men of my
youth? Where are the thousand and two hundred people who, when my father
was a boy, lived upon the shores of this lagoon? They are gone, gone!"

"True, PÔkfa. They are gone."

"Aye, they are perished like the dead leaves. And once when I said in
the hearing of the _kaupule_ (head men) that in the days of the _po-uri_
(heathen times) we were a great people and better off than we are now, I
was beaten by my own grand-daughter, and fined ten dollars for speaking
of such things, and made to work on the road for two months. But it is
true--it is true. Where are the people now? They are dead, perished;
there are now but three hundred left of the thousand and two hundred who
lived in my father's time. And of those that are left, what are they?
They are weak and eaten up with strange diseases. The men cannot hunt
and fish as men hunted and fished in my father's time.

"_Tah!_ they are women, and the women are men, for now the man must work
for the woman, so that she can buy hats and boots and calicoes, and
dress like a white woman. Give me more grog, for these things fill my
belly with bitterness, and the grog is sweet. Ah! I shall tell you many
things to-night."

"Tell me of them, old man. See, the moon is warm to our skins. And as we
drink, we shall eat. Temana here shall bring us food. And we shall talk
till the sun shines over the tops of the trees on Motu Luga. I
would learn of the old times before this island became _lotu_
(Christianised)."

"_Oi._ I will tell you. I am now but as an old, upturned canoe that is
used for a sitting-place for children who play on the beach at night.
And I am called a fool and a bad man, because I sometimes speak of the
days that are dead. Temana, is Malepa thy wife virtuous?"

"_Se kau iloÓ_" ("I do not know"), replied Temana, with a solemn face.

"Ah, you cannot tell! Who can tell nowadays? But you will know when some
day she is fined five dollars. In my time if a man doubted his wife, the
club fell swiftly, or the spear was sped, and she was dead. And, because
of this custom, wives in those days were careful. Now, they care not,
and are fined five dollars many times. And the husband hath to pay the
fine!" He laughed in his noiseless way, and then puffed at his pipe.
"And if he cannot pay, then he and his wife, and the man who hath
wronged him, work together on the roads, and eat and drink together
as friends, and are not ashamed. And at night-time they sing hymns
together!"

"People must be punished when wrong is done, PÔkia," I said lamely.

"Bah! what is five dollars to a woman? Is it a high fence set with
spears over which she cannot climb? If a man hath fifty dollars, does
not his wife know it, and tell her lover (if she hath one) that he may
meet her ten times! Give me more water in this grog, good white man with
the brown skin like mine own!"

The old fellow smoked his pipe in silence for a few minutes; then again
he pointed to the moon, nodded and smiled.

"_Tah!_ What a moon! Would that I were young again! See, in the days of
my youth, on such a night as this, all the young men and women would be
standing on the outer reef fishing for _malau_, which do but take a bait
in the moonlight. _Now_, because to-morrow is the Sabbath day, no man
must launch a canoe nor take a rod in his hand, lest he stay out beyond
the hour of midnight, and his soul go to hell to burn in red fire for
ever and ever. Bah!"

"Never mind these things, PÔkia. Tell me instead how came ye to serve
in the wars of Chile and Peru, or of thy voyages in the _folau manu_
(whaleship)."

His eyes sparkled. "Ah, those were the days! Twice in one whaleship did
I sail among the ice mountains of the far south, where the wind cuts
like a knife and the sea is black to look at _Tapa!_ the cold, the
cold, the cold which burneth the skin like iron at white heat! But I
was strong; and we killed many whales. I, PÔkfa, in one voyage struck
thirteen! I was in the mate's boat.... Look at this now!" He held up his
withered arm and peered at me. "It was a strong arm then; now it is but
good to carry food to my mouth, or to hold a stick when I walk." The
last words he uttered wistfully, and then sighed.

"The mate of that ship was a good man. He taught me many things. Once,
when we had left the cold seas and were among the islands of Tonga,
he struck me in his rage because I threw the harpoon at a great sperm
whale, and missed. That night I slipped over the side, and swam five
miles to the land. Dost know the place called Lifuka? 'Twas there I
landed. I lay in a thicket till daylight, then I arose and went into a
house and asked for food. They gave me a yam and a piece of bonito, and
as I ate men sprang on me from behind and tied me up hand and foot.
Then I was carried back to the ship, and the captain gave those pigs of
Tongans fifty dollars' worth of presents for bringing me back."

"He thought well of thee, PÔkia, to pay so much."

He nodded.

"Aye, for I was a good man, and worth much to him. And I was not
flogged, for the mate was my friend always. All the voyage I was a lucky
man, till we came to a place called Amboyna. Here the mate became sick
and died, so I ran away. This time I was not caught, and when the ship
was gone, I was given work by an Englishman. He was a rich merchant--not
a poor trader like thee. He had a great house, many servants, and many
native wives. Thou hast but two servants, and no wife. Why have ye no
wife? It is not proper!"

I expressed my deep sense of the insignificance of my domestic
arrangements, and gave him another nip of brandy.

"But, like him, thou hast a big heart. May you live long and become a
_mau koloa_ (rich man). Ah! the grog, the good grog. I am young again
to-night... And so for two years I lived at Amboyna. Then my master went
to Peretania--to Livapoola--and took me with him. I was his servant, and
he trusted me and made much of me.

"Ah, Livapoola is a fine place. I was six months there, and wherever my
master went I went with him. By and by he married, and we went to live
at a place by the sea, in a fair white house of stone, with rich lands
encompassing it. It was a foreign place, and we crossed the sea to go
there. There were many women servants there, and one of them, named
Lissi, began to smile at, and then to talk to me. I gave her many
presents, for every week my master put a gold piece in my hand. One day
I asked him to give me this girl for my wife. He laughed, and said I was
foolish; that she was playing with me. I told her this. She swore to me
that when I had fifty gold pieces she would be my wife, but that I must
tell no one.... Ah! how a woman can fool a man! I was fooled. And every
gold piece I got I gave to her to keep for me.

"I have said that there were many servants. There was one young man,
named Harry, whose work it was to take my master about in his _puha tia
tia_ (carriage). Sometimes I would see him talking to the girl, and then
looking at me. Then I began to watch; but she was too cunning. Always
had she one word for me. Be patient; when we have the fifty gold pieces
all shall be well. We shall go away from here, and get married.'

"One night, as I lay upon the grass, smoking my pipe, I heard voices,
the voices of the man Harry and Lissi. They were speaking of me. They
spoke loudly, and I heard all that was said. 'He is but a simple fool,'
she said, with a laugh; 'but in another month I shall have the last
of his money, and then thou and I shall go away quietly. Faugh! the
tattooed beast!' and I heard her laugh again, and the man laughed with
her, but bade her be careful lest I should suspect."

"She was a bad woman, PÔkfa," I began, when he interrupted me with a
quick gesture.

"I crept back into the house and got a knife, and waited. The night was
dark, but I could see. Presently they came along a narrow path which led
to the house. Then I sprang out, and drove my knife twice into the man's
chest. I had not time to kill the woman, for at the third blow the knife
broke off at the hilt, and she fled in the darkness. I wanted to kill
her because she had fooled me and taken my money--forty-six gold pieces.

"There was a great wood which ran from my master's house down to the
sea. I ran hard, very hard, till I came to the water. I could see ships
in the harbour, quite near. I swam to one, and tried to creep on deck
and hide, but heard the sailors talking. Presently I saw a vessel--a
schooner--come sailing slowly past. There was a boat towing astern. I
swam softly over, and got into the boat, and laid down till it was near
the dawn. There was but little wind then, and the ship was not moving
fast, so I got into the water again, and held on to the side of the
boat, and began to cry out in a loud voice for help. As soon as they
heard me the ship was brought to the wind, and I got back into the boat
I was taken on board and given food and coffee, and told the captain
that I had fallen overboard from another ship, and had been swimming
for many hours. Only the captain could speak a little English--all the
others were Italians. It was an Italian ship.

"I was a long time on that ship. We went first to Rio, then down to the
cold seas of the south, and then to Callao. But the captain never gave
me any money, so I ran away. Why should a man work for naught? By and by
an American whaleship came to Callao, and I went on board. I was put in
the captain's boat. We sailed about a long time, but saw no whales, so
when the ship came to Juan Fernandez I and a white sailor named Bob ran
away, and hid in the woods till the ship was gone. Then we came out
and went to the Governor, who set us to work to cut timber for the
whaleships. Hast been to this island?"

"No," I replied; "'tis a fair land, I have heard."

"Aye, a fair, fair land, with green woods and sweet waters; and the note
of the blue pigeon soundeth from dawn till dark, and the wild goats leap
from crag to crag."

"Didst stay there long, PÔkia?"

He rubbed his scanty white beard meditatively. "A year--two years--I
cannot tell. Time goes on and on, and the young do not count the
days. But there came a ship which wanted men, and I sailed away to Niu
Silani.{*} That, too, is a fair land, and the men of the country have
brown skins like us, and I soon learnt their tongue, which is akin to
ours. I was a long time in that ship, for we kept about the coast, and
the Maoris filled her with logs of _kauri_ wood, to take to Sydney. It
was a good ship, for although we were paid no money every man had as
much rum as he could drink and as much tobacco as he could smoke, and a
young Maori girl for wife, who lived on board. Once the Maoris tried
to take the ship as she lay at anchor, but we shot ten or more. Then we
went to Sydney, where I was put in prison for many weeks."

     * New Zealand

"Why was that?"

"I do not know. It was, I think, because of something the captain had
done when he was in Sydney before; he had taken away two men and a
woman who were prisoners of the Governor had seen them on board at Juan
Fernandez; they went ashore there to live. But the Governor of Sydney
was good to me. I was brought before him; he asked me many questions
about these islands, and gave me some silver money. Then the next day I
was put on board a ship, which took me to Tahiti. But see, dear friend,
I cannot talk more to-night, though my tongue is loose and my belly warm
with the good grog. But it is strong, very strong, and I fear to drink
more, lest I disgust thee and lose thy friendship."

"Nay, old man. Have no fear of that. And see, sleep here with us till
the dawn. Temana shall bring thee a covering-mat."

"Ah-h-h! Thou art good to old PÔkfa. I shall stay till the dawn. It is
good to have such a friend. To-morrow, if I weary thee not, I shall tell
thee of how I returned to Chile and fought with the English ship-captain
in the war, and of the woman he loved, and of the great fire which burnt
two thousand women in a church."

"_Tah!_" said Temana incredulously; "two thousand?"

"Aye!" he snapped angrily, "dost think I be drunk, boy? Go and watch thy
wife. How should an ignorant hog like thee know of such things?"

"'Sh, 'sh, old man. Be not so quick to anger. Temana meant no harm. Here
is thy covering-mat. Lie down and sleep."

He smiled good-naturedly at us, and then, pulling the mat over him to
shield his aged frame from the heavy morning dew, was soon asleep.



THE END




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