A Ponapean Convenance by Louis Becke

"Here also, as at Yap, the youngest wives and sisters of the chiefs visited the frigate.... Somewhat shocking at first to our feelings as Christians.... Yet to have declined what was regarded by these simple and amiable people as the very highest token of their regard for the officers of the expedition, would have been bitterly resented.... And, after all, our duties to our King and Queen were paramount... the foundation of friendly relations with the people of this Archipelago!... The engaging manners and modest demeanour of these native ladies were most commendable. That this embarrassing custom was practised to do us especial honour we had ample proof."


Chester, the trader, laid down the book and looked curiously at the title, "A Journal of the Expedition under Don Felipe Tompson, through the Caroline Islands." It was in Spanish, and had been lent him by one of the Jesuit Fathers in Ponapé.

"Ninety years haven't worked much difference in some of the native customs," thought he to himself. "What a sensation Don Felipe would have made lecturing at St. James's Hall on these pleasantly curious customs! I must ask Tulpé about these queer little functions. She's chock-full of island lore, and perhaps I'll make a book myself some day."


"Huh!" said Tulpe, Chester's native wife, whipping off her muslin gown and tossing it aside, as she lay back and cooled her heated face and bared bosom with a fan, "'tis hot, Kesta, and the sun was balanced in the middle of the sky when we left Jakoits in the boat, and now 'tis all but night; and wind there was none, so we used not the sail."

"Foolish creature," said Chester, again taking up his book, "and merely to see this new white missionary woman thou wilt let the sun bake thy hands and feet black."

Handsome, black-browed Tulpé flashed her white, even teeth as she smiled.

"Nay, but listen, Kesta. Such a woman as this one never have I seen. Her skin is white and gleaming as the inside of the pearl-shell. How comes it, my white man, that such a fair woman as this marrieth so mean-looking a man? Was she a slave? Were she a woman of Ponapé, and of good blood, Nanakin the Great would take her to wife."

"Aye," said Chester lazily; "and whence came she and her husband?"

"From Kusaie (Strong's Island), where for two years have they lived, so that now the woman speaketh our tongue as well as thee."

"Ha!" said the trader quickly; "what are their names?"

She told him, and Chester suddenly felt uncomfortable.


Two years before, when spending a few idle months in Honolulu, he had met that white woman. She was waiting to be married to the Rev. Obadiah Yowlman, a hard-faced, earnest-minded, little Yankee missionary, who was coming up from the Carolines in the Planet. There had been some rather heavy love-passages between her and Chester. He preserved his mental equilibrium—she lost hers. The passionate outburst of the "little she missionary," as he called her when he bade her goodbye, he regarded as the natural and consistent corollary of moonlit nights beneath the waving palms on white Hawaiian beaches. When he returned to Ponapé he simply forgot all about her—and Tulpé never asked him inconsiderate questions about other women whom he might have met during the six months he was away from her. He had come back—that was all she cared for.


"I wonder how Tulpe would take it if she knew?" he thought. "She might turn out a bit of a tiger."

"What are thy thoughts, Kesta?" And Tulpé came over to him and leant upon his shoulder. "Is it in thy mind to see and talk with the new missionary and his wife?"

"No," said Chester promptly; "sit thou here, wood-pigeon, and tell me of the customs I read of here."

She sat down beside him, and leant her dark head against his knee, fanning herself the while she answered his questions.


"As it was then, Kesta, so is it now. And if it were to advantage thee I should do likewise. For is it not the duty of a woman to let all men see how great is her love for her husband? And if a great chief or king of thy land came here, would I not obey thee?"

Chester laughed. "No great chiefs of my land come here—only ship-captains and missionaries."

She turned and looked up into his face silently for a few moments, then rose.

"I know thy meaning now. But surely this mean-faced missionary is not to be compared to thee! Kesta, 'tis the fair-faced woman that is in thy mind. Be it as you will. Yet I knew not that the customs of thy land were like unto ours."

"What the devil is she driving at!" thought Chester, utterly failing to grasp her meaning.

Early next morning Tulpe was gone.

****

"Deny it not, white woman. If thou dost not love my husband, how came it that yesterday thou asked his name of me? See now, I deal fairly with thee. For three days will I stay here although thy husband is but as a hog in my eyes, for he is poor and mean-looking, while mine is——, well, thou shalt see him; and for three days shalt thou stay in my house with my husband. So get thee away, then—the boat waits."

Pretty Mrs. Yowlman fled to her room and, wondering whether Chester knew, began to cry, while Tulpé sat down, and, rolling a cigarette, resignedly awaited the appearance of the Rev, Obadiah Yowlman.

An hour afterwards the Rev. gentleman came in with Chester, who had walked across the island on discovering Tulpé's absence.

"No, thank you," he said to the missionary; "I won't stay now.... Some other time I will do myself the pleasure of calling upon Mrs. Yowlman, and yourself... You must excuse my wife having called upon you twice. She is deeply imbued with the native customs and observances, and I—er—sincerely trust she has given no offence."

Then took he Tulpé's hand and led her, wondering, back to his home. And Tulpé thought he and the white woman were both fools.