A Man of Impulse by Louis Becke
Blackett, the new trader at Guadalcanar in the Solomons, was entertaining
a visitor, an old fellow from a station fifty miles distant, who had
sailed over in his cutter to "have a pitch" with his nearest white
neighbour. And the new man—new to this particular island—made
much of his grizzled visitor and listened politely to the veteran's advice
on many subjects, ranging from "doctoring" of perished tobacco with
molasses to the barter of a Tower musket for a "werry nice gal."
The new trader's house looked "snugger'n anything he'd ever seed," so the
old trader had told him; and Blackett was pleased and very liberal with
the liquor. He had been but a few months on the island, and already his
house was furnished, in a rude fashion, better than that of any other
trader in the region. He was a good host; and the captains of the Fiji,
Queensland, and Samoan "blackbirders" liked to visit him and loll about
the spacious sitting-room and drink his grog and play cards—and tell
him that his wife was "the smartest and prettiest woman in the group."
Blackett was especially vain of the young Bonin Island half-caste wife who
had followed his varying fortunes from her home in the far north-west
Pacific to the solitary, ghostly outlier of Polynesia—lonely Easter
Island, and thence to and fro amongst a hundred other islands. He was vain
of her beauty—the beauty that had led him to almost abandon any
intention of returning to civilisation; he was vain of the dark,
passionate eyes, the soft, wavy hair, and the proud little mouth inherited
from her Lusitanian father. Of this latter person, however, neither
Blackett nor Cerita, his wife, were over-proud—he was a notorious
old scamp and ex-pirate, even for that part of the Pacific, and Cerita
knew that Blackett had simply bought her from him as he would buy a boat,
or a bolt of canvas.
Blackett, finding it impossible to make old Hutton drunk or get him to
turn in, resigned himself entirely to the old pirate, who, glancing to the
far end of the room, to where Cerita and his own wife, a tall,
lithe-limbed Aoba woman, were lying together on a mat smoking cigarettes,
proceeded to pour out the story of his countless murders and minor
Blackett himself was a negatively-moral man. He could shoot a native if
necessity demanded, but would not do so hastily; and the old trader's
brutal delight in recounting his pot-shots only excited a disgust which
soon became visible in his face.
"That's all right, Mr. Blackett," said Hutton, with a hideous grin
distorting his monkeyish visage; "I'm only a-tellin' you of these here
things for your own good,... an' I ain't afeered of no man-o'-war
a-collarin' me. This here island is a place where you've got to
sleep with one eye open, an' the moment you sees a nigger lookin' crooked
at you put a lead pill in him—that is, if he's a stranger from
somewheres. An' the more you shoots the better you'll get on with your own
nigs; they likes you more and treats you better."
With a weary gesture, Blackett rose from his seat. "Thank you, Hutton, for
your advice. If I thought a nigger meant to send an arrow or a spear
through me I'd try to get the drop on him first. But I couldn't kill any
one in cold blood on mere suspicion. I could no more do that than—than
you could kill that Aoba wife of yours over there."
Old Hutton rose, too, and put a detaining hand on Blackett. "Look here,
now, an' I suppose you think I'm lyin'. If I thought that that there Aoba
wench was foolin' me in any way—sech as givin' away my tobacco to a
nigger buck, I'd have to wentilate her yaller hide or get laid out
Blackett shuddered. "I'm going to turn in. Let us have another drink,
Hutton. If the Dutch firm's schooner shows up this month I'll clear out of
this accursed hole. I hate the place, and so does my woman." He used the
term "woman" instead of wife purely out of deference to Island custom; but
Hutton noticed it.
"Ain't she really your wife?" he asked inquisitively.
"No—yes—what the devil does it matter to you?" And Blackett,
whose patience had quite worn out, filled the glasses, and passed one to
his visitor, who uncouthly apologised. Then the two shook hands and
The night was close and sultry, and Cerita was lying on the cane-framed
bed, fanning herself languidly. The man was leaning, with his face turned
from her, against the open window, and looking out into the jungle
blackness that encompassed the house. He was thinking of Hutton's query,
"Ain't she really your wife?" His wife! No; but she would be yet. He would
leave this infernal island, where one never knew when he might get a
poisoned arrow or spear into him. He was making money here, yes; but money
wasn't worth dying for. And 'Rita was more than money to him. She had been
the best little woman in the world to him—for all her furious
"Yes, he would leave these blackguardly Solomons, with their hordes of
savage cannibals,... and go back to the eastward again,... and Sydney,
too. He could easily stow her away in some quiet house while he went and
saw his people." And so Blackett thought and smoked away till 'Rita's
voice startled him.
"Give me a match, Harry: I want to smoke. I can't sleep, it's so hot, and
my arm is tired fanning, and the screen is full of mosquitoes. That devil
of a girl—where is she?"
"There!" said Blackett, pointing to beneath the bed, where Europuai, his
wife's attendant, lay rolled up in a mat.
"The black beast!"—and the half-blood rose from the bed, throwing
the mosquito-net angrily aside—"and I thought she was sleeping near
the Aoba woman, the wife of that drunken old Hutton," and, stooping down
so that her black hair fell like a mantle over her bare shoulders, she
seized the short, woolly head of the sleeper and dragged her out.
Blackett laughed. "Easy, 'Rita, easy! You'll frighten her so that she'll
clear out from us. Let her take her mat over there in the corner. Give the
poor devil a chance. She's terrified of old Hutton, so sneaked in here to
hide. She's only a wild bushy"—and he looked compassionately at the
almost nude figure of the girl that his wife had bought from a bush town
for a musket—because she wanted "something to worry," he used
jokingly to say.
The savage creature took the mat sullenly, went to the far end of the
room, and covered herself up again.
"You're too soft with women," said Rita, scornfully.
"I know I am—with you," he answered, good-naturedly. And then the
angry gleam in the black eyes died away, and she laughed merrily.
Two days had passed. Old Hutton had returned to his station, and Blackett
was returning with a boatload of copra from a village across the bay.
Heavy rain-squalls tore down upon the boat at short intervals, and
Blackett, drenched to the skin, began to feel the first deadly chills and
pains of an attack of island fever. Usually light-hearted, he now felt
angry, and savagely cursed at his crew when the heavily-laden boat touched
and ground against the coral knobs that lay scattered about her course. It
was long past midnight when he reached his station, and, stepping wearily
out of the boat, dragged his aching limbs along the beach. 'Rita had heard
the boat, and Blackett could see that a bright fire was burning in the
thatched, open-sided cook-house, and that 'Rita herself was there, with a
number of native children making coffee.
The quickening agonies of fever were fast seizing him, and, entering the
house and throwing himself on a seat, he felt his brain whirling, and
scarcely noticed that Tubariga, the local chief, was bending over him
anxiously. Then 'Rita came with the steaming coffee, and one quick glance
at Blackett's crouched-up figure told her that the dreaded fever had
seized him at last.
'Rita proved herself what Blackett always called her, "one of the smartest
little women going." With Tubariga's help, she carried him to the bed, and
sent out for some women to come and rub and thump his aching joints while
she dosed him with hot rum and coffee. And then Blackett asked her what
she was doing out in the cook-house. Hadn't she a cook? Then the
suppressed rage of the hot-blooded girl broke out in a flood of tears.
Europuai, the wild bush-girl, had been sulky all the time he was away, and
she had given her a little beating with a bamboo. And then the black devil
had run away, and—here the angry beauty wept again—she ('Rita)
had to go out into a filthy cook-shed to boil water before a lot of
man-eating savages! No one would help her, because they were all such
fools that she always lost her temper with them.
Blackett—under the combined influences of rum, strong coffee, fever,
and woman's tears—went into a rage, and glared angrily at the chief,
"You're a d———-d nice fellow," he said in English; "you
get my wife to pay a good musket for a girl, and then as soon as I am away
you let that girl run back into the bush. You're a bad friend."
Tubariga felt hurt. He prided himself on two things—his knowledge of
English and his friendship for white men. He rose to his feet, grasped his
rifle, and made for the door.
"Here, come back, Tubariga. Perhaps it isn't your fault. Let her stay
away. She's no good, anyway."
Tubariga came back. "Tell me, white man, do you want your servant to come
"Yes, d—— you!" answered Blackett, who now again was seized
with that hideous brain-whirl that in fever is simple delirium, "bring her
back, alive or dead."
The chief nodded and went out.
Next morning the first fierce violence of the fever had temporarily left
him, and Blackett was lying covered up with rugs, when the grim figure of
Tubariga entered noiselessly, and stole to his side. Motioning the
trader's wife away, Tubariga's savage features relaxed with a pleased
"Well, Tubariga, how are you?" said Blackett. "'Rita tell me I damn you
too much last night, eh? Never mind, old chap, I was mad about that girl
running away. You can tell her people to keep her—and the musket
too. Rita don't want her any more. Ship come soon, then we go away.'"
Again the pleased smile spread over the chiefs face. Bending over Blackett
he placed his hideous lips, blood-red with the stains of betel-juice,
close to his face, and said with the simple pride of a child, "Me
"What?" said Blackett, with a strange feeling at his heart—"What did
you do to that girl, Tubariga?"
Sitting down with his rifle across his knees, the chief told the
conscience-stricken trader that he had followed the girl to a bush
village, where he, Tubariga, as their chief, had demanded her from her
parents. They insisted on her going back, but she whimpered and said that
the white man's wife would beat her. She sprang for the jungle, and, ere
she reached it, a bullet from the chiefs rifle struck her in the side. And
then, with a feeling of horror, Blackett listened to the rest of the tale—the
poor wretch, with her life-blood ebbing fast, was followed up and a spear
thrust through her heart.
He was sitting at the table with his face clasped in his hands when 'Rita
came in. She was smoking her inevitable cigarette, and the thin wreaths of
blue smoke curled upwards from her lips as she leant one arm on the table
and caressed Blackett's ice-cold forehead with her shapely hand. Suddenly
she stooped and sought gently to remove his hands from his face.
"Harry, are you very ill, old fellow? What can I do for you?"
"Do for me?" and the sudden misery that had smitten his heart looked out
from his pallid face,... "give me back the peace of mind that was mine ten
minutes ago. Leave me to die here of fever—for you I have become a
murderer—a man no better than Hutton. The blood of that poor girl
will for ever be between us." And then she saw that tears were falling
through his trembling fingers.
"Harry," she said, "I thought you were more of a man"—and here her
voice softened—"don't grieve over it. It wasn't your fault,... and I
have been a good little girl to you. Don't be miserable because of such a
little thing as that. If Tubariga hadn't killed her, I daresay I should
have done so myself. She was a sulky little wretch."
I know Blackett well. The horror of that day has never entirely left him.
But for that one dark memory he would have married 'Rita—who would
have most probably run a knife into his ribs later on, when the influence
of her beauty had somewhat waned and he began to look at other women. The
fateful impulse of that moment when he told the chief to bring back the
girl dead or alive wrecked and tortured his mind beyond description. And
he can never forget.
His 'Rita and he left the island soon afterwards to wander away back to
Eastern Polynesia, but his continued fits of melancholy annoyed the girl
so much that she one day quarrelled with and left him, and made a fresh
matrimonial engagement with a man less given to mawkish sentiment.