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The Methodical Mr Burr Of Maduro by Louis Becke

 

ONE day Ned Burr, a fellow trader, walked slowly up the path to my station, and with a friendly nod sat down and watched intently as, with native assistance, I set about salting some pork. Ned lived thirty miles from my place, on a little island at the entrance to the lagoon. He was a prosperous man, and only drank under the pressure of the 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 friendly male natives, start on a case of gin. But never a woman went into Ned's house, though many visited the store, where Ned bought their produce, paid for it in trade or cash, and sent them off, after treating them on a strictly business basis.

Now, the Marshall Island women much resented this. Since Ned's wife had died, ten years previously, the women, backed by the chiefs, had made most decided, but withal diplomatic, assaults upon his celibacy. The old men of his village had respectfully and repeatedly reminded him that his state of singleness was not a direct slight to themselves as leading men alone. If he refused to marry again he surely would not cast such a reflection upon the personal characters of some two or three hundred young girls as 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 declined to open any sort of matrimonial negotiations.

. . . . .

"I'm come to hev some talk with you when you've finished 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 big room and sat down.

"Air ye game ter come and see me get married?" he asked, looking away past me, through the open door, to where the surf thundered and tumbled on the outer reef.

"Ned," I said solemnly, "I know you don't joke, so you must mean it. Of course I will. I'm sure all of us fellows will be delighted to hear you're going to get some nice little carajz to lighten up that big house of yours over there. Who's the girl, Ned?"

"Le-jennabon."

"Whew!" I said, "why, she's the daughter of the biggest chief on Arhnu. I didn't think any white man could get her, even if he gave her people a boat-load of dollars as a wedding-gift."

"Well, no," said Ned, stroking his beard meditatively, "I suppose I 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 had trouble with King Jibberick, I could take her. She was rather young then, any way; but I've been over to Arhnu several times, and I've had spies out, and damn me if I ever could hear a whisper agin' her. I'm told for sure that her father and uncles would ha' killed any one that came after her. So I'm a-goin' to take her and chance it."

"Ned," I said, "you know your own affairs and these people better than I do. Yet are you really going to pin your faith on a Marshall Island girl? You are not like any of us traders. You see, we know what to expect sometimes, and our morals are a lot worse than those of the natives. And it doesn't harrow our feelings much if any one of us has to divorce a wife and get another; it only means a lot of new dresses and some guzzling, drinking, and speechifying, and some bother in teaching the new wife how to make bread. But your wife that died was a Manhikian -- another kind. They don't breed that sort here 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-away cluster of coral atolls. That she was a chief's child it was easy to see; the abject manner in which the commoner natives always behaved themselves in her presence showed their respect for Le-jennabon. Of course we all got very jolly. There were half a dozen of us traders there, and we were, for a wonder, all on friendly terms. Le-jennabon sat on a fine mat in the big room, and in a sweetly dignified manner received the wedding-gifts. One of our number, Charlie de Buis, though in a state of chronic poverty, induced by steadfast adherence to square gin at five dollars a case, made his offerings -- a gold locket covering a woman's miniature, a heavy gold ring, and a pair of fat, cross-bred Muscovy ducks. The bride accepted them with a smile.

"Who is this?" she asked, looking at the portrait -- "your white wife?" "No," replied the bashful Charles, "another man's. That's why I give it away, curse her! But the ducks I bred myself on Madur&ocaron;."

. . . . .

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 on the beach. Trouble was in his face, yet his hard, im- passive features were such that only those who knew him well could discover it. Instead of entering the house, he silently motioned me to come further along the sand, where we reached an open spot clear of coco palms. Ned sat down and filled his pipe. I waited patiently. The wind had died away, and the soft swish and swirl of the tide as the ripples lapped the beach was the only sound that broke upon the silence of the night.

. . . . .

"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 man was chief of Likieb -- a flash buck. The first day he saw Le-jennabon he had a lot too much to say to her. I watched him. Next morning my toddy-cutter came and told me that the flash young chief from Likieb had stuck him up and drank my toddy, and had said something about my wife -- you know how they talk in parables when they mean mischief. I would have shot him for the toddy racket, but I was waitin' for a better reason. . . . The old hag who bosses my cook-shed said to me as she passed, 'Go and listen to a song of cunning over there' -- pointing to a clump of bread-fruit trees. I walked over -- quietly. Le-jennabon and her girls were sitting down on mats. 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. Then the devil's imp commenced again --

"'Marriage hides the tricks of lovers.'

Some of the girls laughed and whispered to Le-jennabon. She shook her head, and looked around timorously. Plain enough, wasn't it? Presently the boy creeps up to the fence, and drops over a wreath of yellow blossoms. The girls laughed. One of them picked it up, and offered it to Le-jennabon. She waved it away. Then, again, the cub outside sang softly --

"'Marriage hides the tricks of lovers,'

and they all laughed again, and Le-jennabon put the wreath on her head, and I saw the brown hide of the boy disappear among the trees.

. . . . .

I went back to the house. I wanted to make certain she would follow the boy first. After a few minutes some of Le-jennabon's women came to me, and said they were going to the weather side of the island -- it's narrer across, as you know -- to pick flowers. I said all right, to go, as I was going to do something else, so couldn't come with them. Then I went to the trade-room and got what I wanted. The old cook-hag showed me the way they had gone, and grinned when she saw what I had slid down inside my pyjamas. I cut round and got to the place. I had a right good idea where it was.

. . . . .

"The girls soon came along the path, and then stopped and talked to Le-jennabon and pointed to a clump of bread-fruit trees standing in an arrow-root patch. She seemed frightened -- but went. Half-way through she stopped, and then I saw my beauty raise his head from the ground 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 his carcase -- them Sharp's rifle make a hole you could put your fist into.

"The girl dropped too -- sheer funk. Old Lebauro, the cook, slid through the trees and stood over him, and said, 'U, guk! He's a fine-made man,' and gave me her knife; and then I collared Le-jennabon, and ----"

"For God's sake, Ned, don't tell me you killed her too!"

He shook his head slowly.

"No, I couldn't hurt her. But I held her with one hand, she feeling dead and cold, like a wet deck-swab; then the old cook-woman undid my flash man's long hair, and, twining her skinny old claws in it, pulled it taut, while I sawed at the chap's neck with my right hand. 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 I slewed her round and made her lift it up again. And the old cook-devil trotted astern o' us. When we came close to the town, I says to Le-jennabon:

"'Do you want to live?'

"'Yes,' says she, in a voice like a whisper.

"'Then sing,' says I, 'sing loud --

"'Marriage hides the tricks of lovers,"

And she sang it in a choky kind of quaver.

"There was a great rush o' people ter see the procession. They stood in a line on both sides of the path, and stared and said nothin'.

"Presently we comes to where all the Likieb chief's people was quartered. They knew the head and ran back for their rifles, but my crowd in the village was too strong, and, o' course, sided with me, and took away their guns. Then the crowd gathers round my place, and I makes Le-jennabon hold up the head and sing again -- sing that devil's chant.

"'Listen,' I says to the people, 'listen to my wife singing a love song.' Then I takes the thing, wet and bloody, and slings it into the middle of the Likieb people, and gave Le-jennabon a shove and sent her inside."

. . . . .

I was thinking what would be the best thing to say, and could only manage "It's a bad business, Ned."

"Bad! That's where you're wrong," and, rising, Ned brushed the sand off the legs of his pyjamas. "It's just about the luckiest thing as could ha' happened. Ye see, it's given Le-jennabon a good idea of what may happen to her if she ain't mighty correct. An' it's riz me a lot in the esteem of the people generally as a man who hez business principles."

 
 
 

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