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Challis The Doubter by Louis Becke

 

The White Lady And The Brown Woman

FOUR years had come and gone since the day that Challis, with a dull and savage misery in his heart, had, cursing the love-madness which once possessed him, walked out from his house in an Australian city with an undefined and vague purpose of going "somewhere" to drown his sense of wrong and erase from his memory the face of the woman who, his wife of not yet a year, had played with her honour and his. So he thought, anyhow.

. . . . .

You see, Challis was "a fool" -- at least so his pretty, violet-eyed wife had told him that afternoon with a bitter and contemptuous ring in her voice when he had brought another man's letter -- written to her -- and with impulsive and jealous haste had asked her to explain. He was a fool, she had said, with an angry gleam in the violet eyes, to think she could not "take care" of herself. Admit receiving that letter? Of course! Did he think she could help other men writing silly letters to her? Did he not think she could keep out of a mess? And she smiled the self-satisfied smile of a woman conscious of many admirers and of her own powers of intrigue.

Then Challis, with a big effort, gulping down the rage that stirred him, made his great mistake. He spoke of his love for her. Fatuity! She laughed at him, said that as she detested women, his love was too exacting for her, if it meant that she should never be commonly friendly with any other man.

. . . . .

Challis looked at her steadily for a few moments, trying to smother the wild flood of black suspicion aroused in him by the discovery of the letter, and confirmed by her sneering words, and then said quietly, but with a dangerous inflection in his voice --

"Remember -- you are my wife. If you have no regard for your own reputation, you shall have some for mine. I don't want to entertain my friends by thrashing R----, but I'm not such a fool as you think. And if you go further in this direction you'll find me a bit of a brute."

Again the sneering laugh -- "Indeed! Something very tragic will occur, I suppose?"

"No," said Challis grimly, "something damned prosaic -- common enough among men with pretty wives -- I'll clear out."

"I wish you would do that now," said his wife, "I hate you quite enough."

Of course she didn't quite mean it. She really liked Challis in her own small-souled way -- principally because his money had given her the social pleasures denied her during her girlhood. With an unmoved face and without farewell he left her and went to his lawyer's.

A quarter of an hour later he arose to go, and the lawyer asked him when he intended returning.

"That all depends upon her. If she wants me back again, she can write, through you, and I'll come -- if she has conducted herself with a reasonable amount of propriety for such a pretty woman."

Then, with an ugly look on his face, Challis went out; next day he embarked in the Lady Alicia for a six months' cruise among the islands of the North-west Pacific.

. . . . .

That was four years ago, and to-day Challis, who stands working at a little table set in against an open window, hammering out a ring from a silver coin on a marline-spike and vyce, whistles softly and contentedly to himself as he raises his head and glances through the vista of coconuts that surround his dwelling on this lonely and almost forgotten island.

"The devil!" he thinks to himself, "I must be turning into a native. Four years! What an ass I was! And I've never written yet -- that is, never sent a letter away. Well, neither has she. Perhaps, after all, there was little in that affair of R----'s. . . . By God! though, if there was, I've been very good to them in leaving them a clear field. Anyhow, she's all right as regards money. I'm glad I've done that. It's a big prop to a man's conscience to feel he hasn't done anything mean; and she likes money -- most women do. Of course I'll go back -- if she writes. If not -- well, then, these sinful islands can claim me for their own; that is, Nalia can."

. . . . .

A native boy with shaven head, save for a long tuft on the left side, came down from the village, and, seating himself on the gravelled space inside the fence, gazed at the white man with full, lustrous eyes.

"Hallo, tama!" said Challis, "whither goest now?"

"Pardon, Tialli. I came to look at thee making the ring. Is it of soft silver -- and for Nalia, thy wife?"

"Ay, O shaven-head, it is. Here, take this masi and go pluck me a young nut to drink," and Challis threw him a ship-biscuit. Then he went on tapping the little band of silver. He had already forgotten the violet eyes, and was thinking with almost childish eagerness of the soft glow in the black orbs of Nalia when she should see his finished handiwork.

The boy returned with a young coconut, unhusked. "Behold, Tialli. This nut is a uto ga'au (sweet husk). When thou hast drunk the juice give it me back, that I may chew the husk which is sweet as the sugar-cane of Samoa," and he squatted down again on the gravel.

. . . . .

Challis drank, then threw him the husk and resumed his work. Presently the boy, tearing off a strip of the husk with his white teeth, said, "Tialli, how is it that there be no drinking-nuts in thy house?"

"Because, O turtle-head, my wife is away; and there are no men in the village to-day; and because the women of this motu I have no thought that the papalagi may be parched with thirst, and so come not near me with a coconut." This latter in jest.

"Nay,Tialli. Not so. True it is that to-day all the men are in the bush binding fala leaves around the coconut trees, else do the rats steal up and eat the buds and clusters of little nuts. And because Nalia, thy wife, is away at the other White Man's house no woman cometh inside the door."

Challis laughed. "O evil-minded people of Nukunono! And must I, thy papalagi, be parched with thirst because of this?"

"Faiaga oe, Tialli, thou but playest with me. Raise thy hand and call out 'I thirst!' and every woman in the village will run to thee, each with a drinking-nut, and those that desire thee, but are afraid, will give two. But to come inside when Nalia is away would be to put shame on her."

. . . . .

The white man mused. The boy's solemn chatter entertained him. He knew well the native customs; but, to torment the boy, he commenced again.

"O foolish custom! See how I trust my wife Nalia. Is she not even now in the house of another white man?"

"True. But, then, he is old and feeble, and thou young and strong. None but a fool desires to eat a dried flying-fish when a fresh one may be had."

"O wise man with the shaven crown," said Challis, with mocking good nature, "thou art full of wisdom of the ways of women. And if I were old and withered, would Nalia then be false to me in a house of another and younger white man?"

"How could she? Would not he, too, have a wife who would watch her? And if he had not, and were nofo noa (single), would he be such a fool to steal that the like of which he can buy -- for there are many girls without husbands as good to look on as that Nalia of thine. And all women are alike," and then, hearing a woman's voice calling his name, he stood up.

"Farewell, O ulu tula poto (Wise Baldhead)," said Challis, as the boy, still chewing his sweet husk,walked back to the native houses clustered under the grove of pua trees.

. . . . .

Ere dusk, Nalia came home, a slenderly-built girl with big dreamy eyes, and a heavy mantle of wavy hair. A white muslin gown, fastened at the throat with a small silver brooch, was her only garment, save the folds of the navy-blue-and-white lava lava round her waist, which the European-fashioned garment covered.

Challis was lying down when she came in. Two girls who came with her carried baskets of cooked food, presents from old Jack Kelly, Challis's fellow-trader. At a sign from Nalia the girls took one of the baskets of food and went away. Then, taking off her wide-brimmed hat of fala leaf, she sat down beside Challis and pinched his cheek.

"O lazy one! To let me walk from the house of Tiaki all alone!"

"Alone! There were two others with thee."

"Tapa Could I talk to them! I, a white man's wife, must not be too familiar with every girl, else they would seek to get presents from me with sweet words. Besides, could I carry home the fish and cooked fowl sent thee by old Tiaki? That would be unbecoming to me, even as it would be if thou climbed a tree for a coconut," -- and the daughter of the Tropics laughed merrily as she patted Challis on his sunburnt cheek.

Challis rose, and going to a little table, took from it the ring.

"See, Nalia, I am not lazy as thou sayest. This is thine."

The girl with an eager "Aue!" took the bauble and placed it on her finger. She made a pretty picture, standing there in the last glow of the sun as it sank into the ocean, her languorous eyes filled with a tender light.

Challis, sitting on the end of the table regarding her with half-amused interest as does a man watching a child with a toy, suddenly flushed hotly. "By God! I can't be such a fool as to begin to love her in reality, but yet . . . Come here, Nalia," and he drew her to him, and, turning her face up so that he might look into her eyes, he asked:

"Nalia, hast thou ever told me any lies?"

The steady depths of those dark eyes looked back into his, and she answered:

"Nay, I fear thee too much to lie. Thou mightst kill me."

"I do but ask thee some little things. It matters not to me what the answer is. Yet see that thou keepest nothing hidden from me."

The girl, with parted lips and one hand on his, waited.

"Before thou became my wife, Nalia, hadst thou any lovers?"

"Yes, two -- Kapua and Tafu-le-Afi."

"And since?"

"May I choke and perish here before thee if I lie! None."

Challis, still holding her soft brown chin in his hand, asked her one more question -- a question that only one of his temperament would have dared to ask a girl of the Tokelaus.

"Nalia, dost thou love me?"

"Aye, alofa tumau (everlasting love). Am I a fool? Are there not Letia, and Miriami, and Eline, the daughter of old Tiaki, ready to come to this house if I love any but thee? Therefore my love is like the suckers of the fa'e (octopus) in its strength. My mother has taught me much wisdom."

A curious feeling of satisfaction possessed the man, and next day Letia, the "show" girl of the village, visiting Challis's store to buy a tin of salmon, saw Nalia, the Lucky One, seated on a mat beneath the seaward side of the trader's house, surrounded by a billowy pile of yellow silk, diligently sewing.

"Ho, dear friend of my heart! Is that silken dress for thee? For the love of God, let me but touch it. Four dollars a fathom it be priced at. Thy husband is indeed the king of generosity. Art thou to become a mother?"

"Away, silly fool, and do thy buying and pester me not."

. . . . .

Challis, coming to the corner of the house, leant against a post, and something white showed in his hand. It was a letter. His letter to the woman of violet eyes, written a week ago, in the half-formed idea of sending it some day. He read it through, and then paused and looked at Nalia. She raised her head and smiled. Slowly, piece by piece, he tore it into tiny little squares, and, with a dreamy hand-wave, threw them away. The wind held them in mid-air for a moment, and then carried the little white flecks to the beach.

"What is it?" said the bubbling voice of Letia, the Disappointed.

"Only a piece of paper that weighed as a piece of iron on my bosom. But it is gone now."

"Even so," said Letia, smelling the gaudy label on the tin of salmon in the anticipative ecstasy of a true Polynesian, "pe se mea fa'agotoimoana (like a thing buried deep in ocean). May God send me a white man as generous as thee -- a whole tin of samani for nothing! Now do I know that Nalia will bear thee a son."

. . . . .

And that is why Challis the Doubter has never turned up again.

 
 
 

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