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Mrs. Maclaggan's, Billy by Louis Becke


When Tom Denison was quite a young man he was earning a not too dishonest sort of a living as supercargo of a leaky old ketch owned by Mrs. Molly MacLaggan of Samoa, which in those days was the Land of Primeval Wickedness and Original and Imported Sin, Strong Drink, and Loose Fish generally. Captain "Bully" Hayes also lived in Samoa; his house and garden adjoined that of Mrs. MacLaggan, and at the back there was a galvanised iron cottage, inhabited by a drunken French carpenter named Leger, whose wife was a full-blooded negress, and made kava for Denison and "Bully" every evening, and used to beat Billy MacLaggan on the head with a pole about six times a day, and curse him vigorously in mongrel Martinique French. Billy MacLaggan was Mrs. Molly's male goat, and as notorious in Samoa as Bully Hayes himself.

I want to try and tell this story as clearly as possible, but there are so many people concerned, and so many things which really happened together, though each one seemed to come before the other a little and try and get into the general jumble, and every one was so confused, some fatuous people blaming the goat, and some Denison, who was generally disliked by the Germans, while Mrs. Molly said it was caused by the man with the bucket of milk, and Captain Hayes who had bribed him to do it, and nearly caused bloodshed, as the German officer who was insulted by Hayes had shot a lot of people in duels, or if he had not shot them he had stuck his sword into them in fifteen places, more or less.

Now let me explain: First of all there was Mrs. Molly, who was the hostess; then there was Hamilton, the Apia pilot and his wife; the manager of the big German firm at Matafale (he wore gold spectacles, and was very fond of Mrs. Molly, who was a widow); then there was Bully Hayes, and old Coe the American consul, and young Denison; all these were some of the local guests, and lived in Samoa, the rest were officers from a German man-of-war lying in port, and the usual respectable town loafers. Then there were Leger, the bibulous carpenter; ' Liza, his black wife; a white policeman named Thady O'Brien, and a loafing scoundrel of a Samoan named Mataiasi, called "Matty" for brevity, who was the public flogger, and milked Mrs. MacLaggan's herd of seven imported Australian cows; and lastly the goat, and about thirty or forty of Bully Hayes's crew, and as many Samoans, who came to look at the dancing and see what they could steal, Leger and his wife and the policeman and the town flogger had charge of the refreshment tables, which for the sake of coolness had been laid out upon the wide, back verandah, and handsomely decorated with pot plants and flags from the man-of-war, and blanc-manges and jellies, and tipsy cake, and cold roast pigeons and chickens were lying around as if they weren't worth two cents.

The big wholesale store, which formed part of Mrs. Molly's house and establishment, made a fine ballroom. All the barrels of whisky and Queensland rum, and the cases of lager beer and Holland's gin, had been stowed neatly on each side, and covered over with flags and orange blossoms by Denison and Bully Hayes and his men, and the orange blossoms killed the smell of the rum so much that strangers would have thought it was sherry.

Everything went on beautifully for the first two hours, and then Mrs. Molly asked Denison to take out a very pretty young half-caste lady and get her a drink of milk. When they reached the side table where the milk should have been, they found it all gone; but O'Brien the policeman said that Mataiasi had just started off to milk another cow.

Just then Hayes came out to the refreshment tables with a lady on his arm. She was thirsty, and so "Bully" opened a large bottle of champagne, and she and he and Denison and the young half-caste lady drank it; then they drank another, and all went oft together to see Mataiasi milking the cow, which was tied up to a coconut tree just outside the fence. The cow was a yellow cow, and was standing very quietly, and just beside her Billy MacLaggan (who caused all this trouble) was lying down, working his jaws to and fro and making curious, snorting sounds in the bright and gorgeous moonlight. I forgot to say that Wm. MacLaggan was the largest and ugliest goat ever known to the memory of man, and had been taught every vice and wickedness any goat could be taught, and it is as natural for a goat to imbibe sin as it is for him to eat a cactus, or a hedgehog, or a tract.

Hayes addressed the goat by his Christian name, and asked him how he did, and Billy looked at Hayes for a second or two out of his green, sharky eyes, then he rose in a dignified manner, and came over to him to be scratched under the chin. Then he blew himself out, snorted, and rubbed his horns against the captain's knee: and Hayes remarked to Denison that the poor beggar wanted a drink, and proposed to give him a "proper one."

The goat knew perfectly well what "drink" meant, and made his vicious tail quiver; then he followed them back to the house, and stood at the foot of the steps waiting for Hayes and Tom to come out again.

On the other side of the courtyard was Mrs. MacLaggan's laundry. The door was wide open and the place was in darkness, and no one took any notice when presently Tom sauntered out of the ballroom, picked up a large plateful of tipsy-cake, and, being kind to animals, gave a piece to William, who followed him into the laundry for the rest; then Hayes came in with a quart bottle of champagne, shut the door and struck a light. Then he opened the bottle of fizz and poured it out into a deep, enamelled starching-dish, and Billy MacLaggan drank thereof, and then raised his head, with his immoral-looking beard hanging in a sodden point like a wet deck-swab, and asked for more. That is, he asked as well as any Christian and civilised goat could ask, by standing up on his hind legs like a circus-horse and making strange, unearthly noises. Then he rammed his wicked old nose into the dish again, and pushed it all round the room, trying to sop up more liquor, which wasn't there, and trod on Denison's canvas-slippered foot, and knocked over the little tin kerosene oil lamp which was standing on the floor, and when Hayes, with loud and blasphemous remarks grabbed at the ironing-blanket of the laundry-table to extinguish the flames, he pulled the table down on the top of Denison and himself and the goat and everything, for the blanket was nailed on at the four corners, and when he was down on his hands and knees, the goat being exceedingly alarmed and half-drunk, and smelling his own hair burning, put his head down and charged at the universe in general, or anything else he could hit, and he hit Hayes fair on the temple with a noise like a ship's mainmast going by the board; then the people outside burst in the door, and the creature, with a bull-like bellow, charged out among them, and landed his bony head into the stomach of Mataiasi, who was carrying the bucket of milk, and was afraid to put it down when he saw him coming; then in some way the handle of the iron bucket got on Billy MacLaggan's horns, which simply made him thirst for gore, for he thought he was being made fun of because he was in liquor. With the bucket swinging and clattering and banging around, he made a dash up on the verandah, among the pretty muslin-clad ladies and white-duck suited men, creating havoc and destruction, and smelling of kerosene and burnt hair and ancient goat, and uttering horrible, blood-curdling bah-h-h-s , till he got into the card-table corner, and mistaking the wide glass window for an open door, he promptly jumped through it, and fell with a shower of glass outside on to the verandah again, where Thady O'Brien and the fat German with the spectacles fell on him, and tried to hold him down, and the spectacles were ground into dust and otherwise damaged, and some of the ladies endeavouring to escape out of the hideous mélée fell with him, and then the goat struggled to his feet with the bucket squashed flat against his forehead, and his horns covered with lace, and tulle, and bits of kid gloves, and planted one of his cloven forefeet into the shirt-front of a German officer, and smashed his watch. Then with another roar of defiance he burst through and disappeared into the wilderness at the back of Mrs. MacLaggan's garden, where he was followed by Leger, the drunken carpenter, and his wife, and nineteen Samoans, all armed with rifles. The army fired at him for two hours, and about midnight returned and reported him riddled with bullets, whereupon Mrs. Molly, who was a little hysterical at the awful mess and wreckage caused by the brute, thanked them and gave them ten dollars.

Now it so happened that Billy MacLaggan was not killed at all, for about two o'clock in the morning, as Bully Hayes and Tom Denison were sitting on the verandah of the former's house at Matautu Point, drinking brandy and soda, and dabbing arnica bandages on their various contusions, Pilot Hamilton hailed them from the front gate. He had just left the dance with his wife, and was quite sober—for Samoa. He asked them to come on with him to his place, as Billy MacLaggan, he said, was lying down in Mrs. Hamilton's kitchen, and seemed poorly, and that he hoped Hayes would forgive the poor thing, which was only a dumb animal. So Hayes and Denison went and saw William, who was now sober and looked sorry. They dressed his wounds, and Tom Denison took him on board early in the morning, intending to take him to sea till the memory of his misdeeds had toned down a bit, for Billy was a great institution in Samoa, and had many friends. Hardly a white man in the place, no matter how hard up he was, but would stand Billy a bottle of lager or a chew of tobacco. (I forgot to mention that Billy would drink anything and chew anything, except cigarettes, at which he snorted with contempt.) Now Denison's little vessel was lying quite near the German man-of-war, and was to sail next day for the Solomons if the captain was sober, and he (Denison) had a lot of work to do to get the ship ready, and whilst he was poring over accounts in the cabin about noon, a boat ran alongside and Bully Hayes came into the cabin.

"Where's Billy?" he said. "Quick, get him into my boat at once. There's a search-party coming on board, and the widow is going to give you the dirty kick-out, Tom Denison. There's been the devil to pay over that cursed goat, but I'm going to save his life all the same. But if she does sack you, you can come to me for a berth."

Billy, who was placidly eating bananas on the main deck, was at once seized and hoisted over the side into Hayes's boat, which shoved off, leaving Hayes on board to explain things to Tom.

It seemed that when the fat German manager—the man with spectacles—I mean the man who had the spectacles until Billy MacLaggan came in—the man who was courting Mrs. Molly—fell on the top of the goat, some other man trod on his face, and Leger (who was not sober enough to tell one person from another) said that he saw Tom Denison do it. Seven natives, male and female, swore that at the time alleged Tom was out on the beach bathing his crushed toe in the salt water, and using solemn British oaths; but Leger, who disliked Denison, who had once kicked him overboard violently for being drunk, not only stuck to the story, but said that Hayes and Tom had set the goat on fire on purpose to break up the dance and cause annoyance to the Germans present; also he vaguely hinted that they, Denison and Hayes, would have driven the seven cows into the ballroom but couldn't find them. Then Mrs. MacLaggan promised the fat man to sack Denison on the following morning, and at midnight, as I have said, word was brought in that Billy had been shot. But about ten in the morning Leger heard from some native that the goat was as well as ever, and on board Denison's vessel, and being a mean, spiteful little hound, off he trotted to the German manager, and said that Captain Hayes and Mr. Denison had rescued the creature. At that very moment the manager was talking to some German officers, one of whom was the man whose watch had been smashed, and as every German in Samoa hated Hayes most fervently, it was at once concluded that Hayes had trained, or suborned, or bribed, or corrupted the goat to do it. So a young lieutenant went and called upon Hayes, and demanded satisfaction for his friend, and Hayes was exceedingly rude to him, but said that if the man with the broken watch liked to meet Billy MacLaggan with his own weapons, and fight him in a goatsmanlike manner, for fifty dollars a side, he (Hayes) would put up Billy's fifty. Then the lieutenant asked for a written apology for his friend, and Hayes said that Billy couldn't write, and, anyway, he was Mrs. Molly's goat. If the man with the smashed nickel wanted an apology, why the blazes didn't he approach Mrs. MacLaggan? he asked.

Whilst Hayes was telling all this to Tom, pulling his thick beard and laughing loudly, as they paced the little vessel's deck, the search-party came on board to recover the goat. The leader bore a letter from Mrs. MacLaggan to Tom, informing him that his services as supercargo were no longer required, also that he could come ashore at once and be paid off, as his conduct was heartless, and the consuls said it might lead to serious complications, as it had been done with intent to insult the citizens of a friendly nation, one of whom, as he was aware, had made the natives cut down the price of copra half a cent. Under these circumstances, &c.

Tom grinned and showed the letter to Hayes. Then he turned to the mate.

"I've got the sack, Waters. You're in charge of this rotten, filthy old hooker now until the old man is sober."

He packed up his traps, went ashore, drew his money from Mrs. MacLaggan's cashier, and bade him goodbye.

"Where's the goat, Tom?"

"On board Bully Hayes' ship. His crool, crool mistress shall see him no more! Never more shall his plaintive call to his nannies resound o' nights among the sleeping palm-groves of the Vaisigago Valley; never——"

The cashier jumped up out of his chair and seized the dismissed supercargo by the collar.

"Stop that bosh, you rattlebrained young ass, and come and take a farewell drink."

"Never more will he butt alike the just and the unjust, the fat and bloated German merchant nor the herring-gutted Yankee skipper, nor the bare—ah—um—legged Samoan, nor the gorgeous consul in the solar topee. Gone is the glory of Samoa with Billy MacLaggan. Goodbye for the present, Wade, old man—I am not so proud of my new dignity—I am to be supercargo of the brig Rona —as to refuse to drink with you, though you are but a cashier. And give my farewell to the widow, and tell her that I bear her no ill-will, for I leave a dirty little tub of a cockroach- infested ketch for a swagger brig, where I shall wear white suits every day and feel that peace of mind which—"

"Oh, do dry up, you young beggar," said the good-natured cashier, whose laughter proved so infectious that Tom joined in.

"Come then, Wade, just another ere we part."

Now as these two were drinking in the cashier's office it happened that Thady O'Brien, the policeman (he was chief of the municipal police, and fond of drink) saw them, and invited himself to join them and also to express his sorrow at Denison's "misfortune," as he called it, for Denison was a lovable sort of youth, and often gave him drink on board. So they all sat down, Wade in the one chair, and Tom and the policeman on the table, and had several more drinks, and just then Mrs. MacLaggan came to the door, holding a note in her hand. She bowed coldly to Tom, whose three stiff drinks of brandy enabled him to give her a reproachful glance.

"Captain Hayes wants to buy one or two of the nanny-goats, to take away with him to Ponapé, Mr. Wade," she said. "I shall be glad to let him have them. Please tell Leger and Mataiasi to catch them at once."

Then Mrs. MacLaggan went away, and Tom and O'Brien went down to the jetty to wait for a boat to take them on board—Tom to his duty, and O'Brien because he was thirsty again. Presently Leger and Mataiasi and a large concourse of native children came down, carrying two female goats, who, imagining they were to be cast into the sea, began to cry with great violence, and were immediately answered in a deep voice by Billy MacLaggan from over the water, whereupon Leger started to run off and tell Mrs. MacLaggan that Billy was alive, and on board the Rona , and Denison put out his foot and tripped him, and was at once assailed by Leger's black wife, who hit him on the head with a stick, and then herself was pushed backwards off the jetty into the water by Mr. O'Brien, taking several children and one of the goats with her, and in less than two minutes there was as pretty a fight as ever was seen. Several native police ran to help their superior officer, and a lot of dogs came with them; the dogs bit anybody and everybody indiscriminately, but most of them went for Leger and Denison, who were lying gasping together on the jetty, striving to murder each other; then a number of sailors belonging to a whaleship joined in, and tried to massacre or otherwise injure and generally maltreat the policemen, and by the time the boat from the Rona came to the rescue the jetty looked like a battlefield, and one goat was drowned, and the new supercargo was taken on board to have his excoriations attended to, for he was in a very bad state.

That is the end of the story, which I have told in a confused sort of away, I admit, because there are so many things in it, though I could tell a lot more about the adventures of Billy MacLaggan, after he went to sea with Captain Bully Hayes.