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A Truly Great Man by Louis Becke


THEN the flag of "Bobby" Towns, of Sydney, was still mighty in the South Seas. The days had not come in which steamers with brass-bound supercargoes, carrying tin boxes and taking orders like merchants' bagmen, for goods "to arrive," exploited the Ellice, Kingsmill, and Gilbert Groups. Bluff-bowed old wave-punchers like the Spec, the Lady Alicia and the E. K. Bateson plunged their clumsy hulls into the rolling swell of the mid- Pacific, carrying their "trade" of knives, axes, guns, bad rum, and good tobacco, instead of, as now, white umbrellas, paper boots and shoes, German sewing-machines and fancy prints -- "zephyrs," the smartly-dressed paper-collared supercargo of to-day calls them, as he submits a card of patterns to Emilia, the native teacher's wife, who, as the greatest Lady in the Land, must have first choice.

. . . . .

In those days the sleek native missionary was an unknown quantity in the Tokelaus and Kingsmills, and the local white trader answered all requirements. He was generally a rough character -- a runaway from some Australian or American whaler, or a wandering Ishmael, who, for reasons of his own, preferred living among the intractable, bawling, and poverty-stricken people of the equatorial Pacific to dreaming away his days in the monotonously happy valleys of the Society and Marquesas Groups.

. . . . .

Such a man was Probyn, who dwelt on one of the low atolls of the Ellice Islands. He had landed there one day from a Sydney sperm whaler with a chest of clothes, a musket or two, and a tierce of twist tobacco; with him came a savage-eyed, fierce-looking native wife, over whose bared shoulders and bosom fell long waves of black hair; with her was a child about five years old.

The second mate of the whaler, who was in charge of the boat, not liking the looks of the excited natives who swarmed around the newcomer, bade him a hurried farewell, and pushed away to the ship, which lay-to off the passage with her fore-yard aback. Then the clamorous people pressed more closely around Probyn and his wife, and assailed them with questions.

So far neither of them had spoken. Probyn, a tall, wiry, scanty-haired man, with quiet, deep-set eyes, was standing with one foot on the tierce of tobacco and his hands in his pockets. His wife glared defiantly at some two or three score of reddish-brown women who crowded eagerly around her to stare into her face; holding to the sleeve of her dress was the child, paralysed into the silence of fright.

. . . . .

The deafening babble and frantic gesticulations were perfectly explicable to Probyn, and he apprehended no danger. The head man of the village had not yet appeared, and until he came this wild license of behaviour would continue. At last the natives became silent and parted to the right and left as Tahori, the head man, his fat body shining with coconut oil, and carrying an ebony-wood club in his hand, stood in front of the white man and eyed him up and down. The scrutiny seemed satisfactory. He stretched out his huge, naked arm, and shook Probyn's hand, uttering his one word of Samoan -- "Talofa!" and then, in his own dialect, he asked: "What is your name, and what do you want?"

"Sam," replied Probyn. And then, in the Tokelau language, which the wild-eyed people around him fairly understood, "I have come here to live with you and trade for oil" -- and he pointed to the tierce of tobacco.

"Where are you from?"

"From the land called Nukunono, in the Tokelau."

"Why come here?"

"Because I killed an enemy there."

"Good!" grunted the fat man; "there are no twists in thy tongue; but why did the boat hasten away so quickly?"

"They were frightened because of the noise. He with the face like a fowl's talked too much" -- and he pointed to a long, hatchet-visaged native, who had been especially turbulent and vociferous.

. . . . .

"Ha!" and the fat, bearded face of Tahori turned from the white man to him of whom the white man had spoken -- "is it thee, Makoi? And so thou madest the strangers hasten away! That was wrong. Only for thee I had gone to the ship and gotten many things. Come hither!"

Then he stooped and picked up one of Probyn's muskets, handed it to the white man, and silently indicated the tall native with a nod. The other natives fell back. Niabong, Probyn's wife, set her boy on his feet, put her hand in her bosom and drew out a key, with which she opened the chest. She threw back the lid, fixed her black eyes on Probyn, and waited.

Probyn, holding the musket in his left hand, mused a moment. Then he asked:

"Whose man is he?"

"Mine," said Tahori; "he is from Oaitupu, and my bondman."

"Hath he a wife?"

"Nay; he is poor, and works in my puraka field!"

"Good," said Probyn, and he motioned to his wife. She dived her hand into the chest and handed him a tin of powder, then a bullet, a cap, and some scraps of paper.

Slowly he loaded the musket, and Tahori, seizing the bondman by his arm, led him out to the open, and stood by, club in hand, on the alert.

Probyn knew his reputation depended on the shot. He raised his musket and fired. The ball passed through the chest of Makoi. Then four men picked up the body and carried it into a house.

. . . . .

Probyn laid down the musket and motioned again to Niabong. She handed him a hatchet and blunt chisel. Tahori smiled pleasantly, and, drawing the little boy to him, patted his head.

Then, at a sign from him, a woman brought Niabong a shell of sweet toddy. The chief sat cross-legged and watched Probyn opening the tierce of tobacco. Niabong locked the box again and sat upon it.

"Who are you?" said Tahori, still caressing the boy, to the white man's wife.

"Niabong. But my tongue twists with your talk here. I am of Naura (Pleasant Island). By-and-by I shall understand it."

"True. He is a great man, thy man," said the chief, nodding at Probyn.

"A great man, truly. There is not one thing in the world but he can do it."

"E mo," said the fat man, approvingly; "I can see it. Look you, he shall be as my brother, and thy child here shall eat of the best in the land."

Probyn came over with his two hands filled with sticks of tobacco.

"Bring a basket," he said.

A young native girl slid out from the coconut grove at Tahori's bidding, and stood behind him holding a basket. Probyn counted out into it two hundred sticks of tobacco.

"See, Tahori. I am a just man to thee because thou art a just man to me. Here is the price of him that thou gavest to me."

Tahori rose and beckoned to the people to return. "Look at this man. He is a truly great man. His heart groweth from his loins upwards to his throat. Bring food to my house quickly, that he and his wife and child may eat. And to-morrow shall every man cut wood for his house, a house that shall be in length six fathoms, and four in width. Such men as he come from the gods."


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