A Question of Precedence by Louis Becke

Denison, the supercargo of the Indiana was always reproaching Packenham, the skipper, for getting the ship into trouble by his inconsiderate and effusive good-nature—"blind stupidity," Denison called it. And whenever Packenham did bring trouble upon himself or the ship's company by some fresh act of glaring idiotcy, he would excuse himself by saying that it wouldn't have happened if Nerida had been with him that trip. Nerida was Packenham's half-caste Portuguese wife. She was a very small woman, but kept her six-foot husband in a state of placid subjection and also out of much mischief whenever she made a cruise in the Indiana. Therefore Denison loved her as a sister, and forgave her many things because of this. Certainly she was a bit of a trial sometimes to every living soul on board the brig, but then all skippers' wives are that, even when pure white. And Nerida's doings would make a book worth reading—especially by married women with gadabout husbands like Packenham. But on this occasion Nerida was not aboard, and Denison looked for trouble.

For four days and nights the little Indiana had leapt and spun along, before a steady southerly gale, rolling like a drunken thing a-down the for'ard slopes of mountain seas, and struggling gamely up again with flattened canvas from out the windless trough; a bright, hot sun had shone upon her swashing decks from its slow rosy dawn to its quick setting of fiery crimson and blazing gold; and at night a big white moon lit up an opal sky, and silvered the hissing froth and smoky spume that curled in foaming ridges from beneath her clean-cut bows.

The brig was bound from Auckland to Samoa and the islands of the north-west, and carried a cargo of trade goods for the white traders who hoisted the Indiana's house-flag in front of their thatched dwellings. Packenham thought a good deal of this flag—it bore the letters R. P. in red in a yellow square on a blue ground—until one day Hammerfeld, the German supercargo of the Iserbrook, said it stood for Remorseless Plunderer. Some one told this to Packenham, and although he gave the big Dutchman a bad beating for it, the thing travelled all over the South Seas and made him very wroth. So then he got Nerida to sew another half turn in red to the loop of the P, and thereby made it into a B.

"That'll do fine," he said to Denison. '"Bob Packenham' instead of 'Robert Packenham,' eh?"

"Ye-s," answered, Denison thoughtfully, "I daresay it will be all right." And a month later, when Captain Bully Hayes came on board the Indiana in Funafuti Lagoon, he gravely told Packenham that a lot of people were saying the letters stood for "Bloody Pirate."

But all this has nothing to do with this story.

As I have said, the brig was running before a stiff southerly gale. Packenham came on deck, and flinging his six feet of muscular manhood upon the up-ended flaps of the skylight, had just lit his cigar when Alan the bos'un came aft and said that the peak of Tutuila was looming high right ahead, thirty miles away.

"Bully old ship!" said the skipper, "give the Indiana a good breeze that catches her fair and square in the stern and she'll run like a scared dog with a tin-pot tied to his tail. Denison, you sleepy beast, come up on deck and look at Samoa the Beautiful, where every prospect pleases and only the German trader is vile."

And so as he and Denison sat aft on the skylight drinking their afternoon coffee and smoking their Manilas, and the brown-skinned native crew sat below in the dark and stuffy foc's'le and gambled for tobacco, the Indiana foamed and splashed and rolled before the gale till she ran under the lee of the land into a sea of transparent green, whose gentle rollers scarce broke in foam as they poured over the weed-clad ledges of the barrier-reef into the placid waters or the islet-studded lagoon encompassing the mainland about the village of Sa Lotopa.

Then as some of the merry-hearted kanaka crew ranged the cable, and others ran aloft to clew-up the sails, Packenham steered the brig between a narrow reef-bound passage till she brought up abreast a sweeping curve of sandy beach, shining white under the wooded spurs of a mountain peak two thousand feet above. Back from the beach and showing golden-brown among the sunlit green lay the thatched houses of a native village, and as the brig came head to wind, and the cable clattered through the hawse-pipes, the brown-skinned people ran joyously down to their canoes and swarmed off to the ship. For they all knew Pakenami the kapeni, and Tenisoni the supercargo, and Alan the half-caste bos'un, and the two mates, and the Chinaman cook, and every one else on board, and for years past had laughed and joked and sang and hunted the wild boar with them all; and sometimes lied to and robbed and fought with them, only to be better friends than ever when the white men came back again, and the skipper and Denison made the young men presents of meerschaum pipes and condemned Snider rifles; and Alan the Stalwart "asked" every fourth girl in the village when he got drunk at a dance and denied it when sober, yet paid damages like an honourable man (2 dols, in trade goods for each girl) to the relatives.

In a few minutes the first batch of canoes reached the ship, and the occupants, men, women, and children, clambered up the brig's side, and then rushed aft to the poop to rub noses with Packenham and Denison, after the custom of the country, and then for a time a wild babble of voices reigned.

"Hallo, Iakopo, how are you!" said the skipper, shaking hands with a fat-faced, smiling native, who was clad in a white duck suit, and was accompanied by a pretty, dark-eyed girl; "how's the new church getting on? Nearly finished, is it. Well, I didn't forget you. I've brought you down the doors and windows from Auckland."

Iakopo (Anglicè Jacob), who was the local teacher and rather a favourite with the Indiana's company, said he was very glad. He was anxious to get the church finished before the next visit of the missionary ship, he said. That vain fellow Pita, the teacher at Leone Bay, had been boasting terribly about his church, and he (Iakopo) meant to crush him utterly with these European-made doors and windows, which his good friend Pakenami had brought him from Nui Silani.

"You bet," said the skipper; "and what's more, I'll help you to take the shine out of Pita. I'll fix the doors and windows for you myself," and he winked slily at the teacher's daughter, who returned it as promptly as any Christian maiden, knowing that Nerida wasn't on board, and that she had nothing to fear.

"I wish to goodness that fellow hadn't come aboard," grumbled Denison to Packenham, after the missionary and his daughter had gone ashore. "Peter Deasy and the Dutchman don't like it, I can see, or they would have been aboard before now. No white man likes boarding a ship after a native teacher, and both these fellows are d——d touchy. The chances are that they won't come aboard at all to-day."

"That's true," said the captain thoughtfully; "I didn't think of that." (He never did think.) "Shall I go ashore first, and smooth down their ruffled plumage?"

Denison said he thought it would be a good thing to do. Deasy and the Dutchman (i.e., the German) were both independent traders, who had always bought their trade goods from and sold their produce to the Indiana for years past, and were worth humouring. So Packenham went ashore, leaving Denison to open out his wares in the brig's trade room in readiness for the two white men.

Now both Peter Deasy and Hans Schweicker were feeling very sulky—as Denison imagined—and at that moment were talking to each other across the road from their respective doorways, for their houses were not far apart. They had intended boarding the ship the moment she anchored, but abandoned the idea as soon as they saw the teacher going off. Not that they disliked Iakopo personally, but then he was only a low-class native, and had no business thrusting himself before his betters. So they sat down and waited till Denison or the captain came ashore.

Peter wore a pair of clean white moleskins and a bright pink print shirt covered with blue dogs; and as the lower portion of this latter garment was hanging outside instead of being tucked inside his moleskins, quite a large number of dogs were visible. Hans, dressed in pyjamas of a green and yellow check, carefully starched, smoked a very bad German cigar; Deasy puffed a very dirty clay dhudeen.

Presently one of Hans's wife's numerous relatives ran up to him, and told him that the captain was coming ashore, and the atmosphere at once cleared a little. Deasy was the elder trader, and by right of custom expected the skipper would come to his house first. Hans, however, was the "warmest" man of the two, and thought he should be the honoured man, especially as he had the larger quantity of copra and other island produce to sell Packenham. Both men were very good friends at that moment, and had been so for years past. They had frequently lied manfully on each other's behalf when summoned before the Deputy-Commissioner for selling arms and ammunition to the natives. But while in social matters—such as getting drunk, circumventing the missionaries, and making fools of her Majesty's representatives—the two were in perfect and truly happy accord, they were often devoured with the bitterest business jealousies, and their wives and relatives generally shared this feeling with them. And as Mrs. Deasy and Mrs. Schweicker each had a large native following who all considered their white man was the better of the two, the question of commercial supremacy between Peter Deasy and Hans Schweicker was one of much local importance.

As the word was passed along that the captain was coming, the female inmates of the two houses each surrounded their respective head, and looked anxiously over his shoulders at the approaching visitor. Deasy's wife had put on her best dress; so had Schweicker's. Pati-lima—otherwise Mrs. Peter Deasy—who was a huge eighteen stone creature, with a round good-humoured face and a piping childish voice, had arrayed her vast proportions in a flowing gown of Turkey-red twill, and the radiant glory thereof had a pleasing and effective background in the garments of her three daughters, who were dressed in 'green, yellow, and blue respectively. Manogi—Mrs. Schweicker—who had no children, and was accounted the prettiest woman in Samoa, was clothed, like her husband, in spotless white, and her shining black tresses fell in a wavy mantle down to her waist. Unlike Pati-lima's daughters, whose heads were encircled by wreaths of orange blossoms, Manogi wore neither ornament nor decoration. She knew that her wavy hair drooped gracefully down her clear-cut, olive-hued face like the frame of a picture, and set off her bright eyes and white teeth to perfection; and that no amount of orange blossoms could make her appear more beautiful. So in the supreme and blessed consciousness of being the best-dressed and best-looking woman in the whole village, she sat behind her husband fanning herself languidly, and scarce deigning to answer the Deasy girls when they spoke to her.

Presently the boat touched the beach. The captain jumped out, shook hands with a number of natives who thronged around him, and stepped along the path. Half-way between the white men's houses was the unfinished church, and near to that the teacher's house, embowered in a grove of orange and lemon trees. As Packenham walked along he looked up the road, smiled and nodded at the Deasy and Schweicker crowd, then deliberately turned to the left and walked into the teacher's dwelling! And Manogi and all the Deasy women saw Miriamu, the teacher's daughter, come to the open window and make a face at them in derision. Peter and Schweicker looked at each other in speechless indignation.

"The swape av the wurruld!" and Deasy dashed his pipe down at his feet and smashed it in small pieces, "to go to a native's house first an' white min sthandin' awaitin' his pleasure. By the sowl av' me mother, Hans, devil a foot does he put inside my door till he explains phwat he manes by it."

"Shoost vat you mide expeg from a new chum!" replied Hans, who had lived in Australia. Then they both went back to their respective houses to await events.

Now Packenham meant no harm, and had not the faintest idea he was giving offence. But then, as Denison said, he never would think. Yet on this occasion he had been thinking. Iakopo had told him that he had collected enough money to pay for the doors and windows right away, and then Packenham, who knew that this would surprise and please Denison, told the teacher that he would call for the money when he came ashore.

"Come to my father's house first—before you go to the white men's," said Iakopo's daughter, with a side look at the captain. She hated all the Deasy girls and Manogi in particular, who had "said things" about her to Denison, and knew that they would feel furiously jealous of her if Packenham called at her father's house first. And Packenham said he would do so.

Half an hour passed, and then the skipper having been paid the money by the teacher, and having smoked a couple of cigarettes rolled for him by Miriamu, said he must go. And Miriamu, who wanted to triumph over the Deasy girls and Manogi, said she would come too. On the Scriptural principle of casting bread upon the waters she had given Packenham some presents—a fan, a bottle of scented coconut-oil, and two baked fowls. These she put into a basket and told her little brother to bring along—it would annoy the other girls.

During this time Deasy and Hans had been talking over the matter, and now felt in a better temper. Manogi had said that Denison was a more important man than Packenham. He wouldn't have gone into the teacher's house first; and then most likely Miriamu, who was no better than she ought to be, had called the captain in.

"Why let this vex thee?" she said, "this captain for ever forgetteth faà Samoa (Samoan custom), and hath been beguiled by Miriamu into her father's house."

After awhile Deasy and Hans agreed with her, and so when Packenham came up to them with outstretched hand, they greeted him as usual; but their women-folk glared savagely at Miriamu, who now felt frightened and stuck close to the captain.

"Bedad, it's hot talking here in the sun," said Deasy, after Packenham had shaken hands with Mrs. Deasy and Mrs. Hans and the girls, "come inside, captain, and sit down while I start my people to fill the copra bags and get ready for weighing."

"Veil, I don't call dot very shentlemanly gonduck," grunted Hans, who, naturally enough, wanted his copra weighed first so that he could get away on board the brig and have first pick of Denison's trade room.

Deasy fired up. "An' I tell ye, Hans, the captain's going to plase himself intoirely. Sure he wouldn't turn his back on my door to plase a new man like you—-"

Manogi pushed herself between them: "You're a toga fiti man (schemer), Paddy Deasy," she said in English, with a contemptuous sniff.

"Yes," added Hans, "you was no good, Deasy; you was alvays tarn shellous——"

"An' you're a dirty low swape av a Dutchman to let that woman av yours use a native wor-rud in the captain's hearin'," and Deasy banged his fellow-trader between the eyes, as at the same moment Manogi and Pati-lima sprang at each other like fiends, and twined their hands in each other's hair. Then, ere Manogi's triumphant squeal as she dragged out a handful of the Deasy hair had died away, half a dozen young lady friends had leapt to her aid, to be met with cries of savage fury by the three Misses Deasy, and in ten seconds more the whole lot were fighting wildly together in an undistinguishable heap, with Deasy and the Dutchman grasping each other's throats underneath.

Packenham jumped in on top of the struggling mass, and picking up three women, one after another, tossed them like corks into the arms of a number of native men who had now appeared on the scene, and were encouraging the combatants; but further movement on his part was rendered impossible by Miriamu, who had clasped him round the waist and was imploring him to come away. For a minute or so the combat continued, and then the tangle of arms, legs, and dishevelled hair was heaved up in the centre, and Deasy and Hans staggered to their feet, glaring murder and sudden death at each other.

Freeing himself from the grasp of the minister's daughter, who at once leapt at Manogi, Packenham seized Schweicker by the collar, and was dragging him away from Deasy when he got a crack on the side of his head from Manogi's mother, who thought he meant to kill her son-in-law, and had dashed to the rescue with a heavy tappa mallet. And then, as Packenham went down like a pithed bullock, there arose a wild cry from some one that the white captain was being murdered. Denison heard it, and with five of the Indiana's crew, armed with Winchester rifles, he jumped into the boat and hurried ashore.

By this time some thirty or forty stalwart Samoans, under the direction of the teacher, had flung themselves upon the women who were still rending each other in deadly silence, and in some way separated them. Packenham was lying apart from the rest, his head supported by a white-haired old native who was threatening every one present with the bloody vengeance of a man-of-war. Deasy and Hans were seated on the sward, still panting and furious. Deasy had one black eye; Hans had two.

"Are yez satisfied, Dutchy?" inquired Deasy.

"Shoost as mooch as you vas!" answered the German.

Now here the matter would have ended, but just at that time Pati-lima, who was being fanned by a couple of her friends, caught sight of the slight figure of Manogi, her white muslin gown torn to ribbons and her bosom heaving with excitement. Her beautiful face, though white with rage, was un-marred by the slightest scratch, while Pati-lima's was deeply scored by her enemy's nails. This was hard to bear.

Raising herself on one elbow, Mrs. Deasy pointed contemptuously to Manogi's husband and called out—

"Ah, you conceited Manogi! Take home thy German pala-ai (coward). My man hath beaten him badly."

"Thou liest, thou great blubbering whale," was the beauty's scornful reply; "he could beat such a drunkard as thy husband any day."

The two women sprang to their feet, and were about to engage again when Denison ran in between them, and succeeded in keeping them apart. Deasy and Hans looked on unconcernedly.

"What is all this?" said Denison to Packenham.

Packenham groaned, "I don't know. An old woman hit me with a club."

"Serve you right. Now then, Deasy, and you, Hans, send all these women away. I thought you had more sense than to encourage such things," and then Denison, who excelled in vituperative Samoan, addressed the assemblage, and told the people to go home.

Still glaring defiance, the two factions slowly turned to leave the field, and again all would have been well but for Manogi, who was burning to see the thing out to its bitter end. So she had her try.

Pati-lima came from Manono, the people of which island eat much shell-fish, and suffer much in consequence from the sarcastic allusions of the rest of the Samoan people. And they don't like it, any more than a Scotsman likes his sacred haggis being made the subject of idiotic derision. So as the two parties moved off, Manogi faced round to Pati-lima.

"Pah! Manono ai foli" (Manono feeds on shellfish).

"Siamani vao tapiti elo" (Germans gorge on stinking cabbage) was the quick retort of Mrs. Deasy, who pointed scornfully at Manogi's husband, and instantaneously the whole assemblage, male and female, were engaged in hideous conflict again, while Denison and his boat's crew, "Wond'ring, stepped aside," and let them fight it out.

What the result would have been had not the encounter been stopped is hard to say; but in the midst of this second struggle the young yellow-haired local chief bounded into the fray, and smote right and left with a heavy club, ably seconded by Denison and his men and lakopo. The appearance of the chief was, however, enough—the opposing factions drew off from each other and retired, carrying their wounded with them.

"What a brace of detestable ruffians!" said Captain De Groen, of her Majesty's ship Dawdler, to Denison a day or two afterwards. The doctor of the man-of-war had gone ashore to patch up the wounded, and Denison had been telling the commander how the affair occurred.

Now Captain De Groen was wrong. Both Deasy and Schweicker were as decent a pair of men as could be found in the Pacific—that is to say, they did no harm to a living soul except themselves when under the influence of liquor, which was not infrequent. But it was all Packenham's fault. Had he kept clear of the teacher's house, Deasy and Hans would not have felt affronted, Manogi and Pati-lima would not have said nasty things to each other, and Denison would not have been reported upon officially by her Majesty's High Commissioner for the Western Pacific as a person who, "with a Mr. Packenham, master of the brig Indiana, incited the native factions of Sa Lotopa to attack each other with murderous fury."