Leasse by Louis Becke

There were only a score or so of houses in Leassé village—curious saddle-backed structures, with steeply pitched roofs of gray and yellow thatch, rising to a sharp point fore and aft; and in all the twenty not more than one hundred natives—men, women, and children—dwelt. At the back of the village the dense mountain forest began, and all day long one might hear the booming notes of the gray wood-pigeons and the shrill cries of the green and golden parrakeets as they fed upon the rich purple berries of the masa'oi and the inflorescence of the coco-palms. In front, and between two jutting headlands of coral rock, with sides a-green with climbing masses of tupa vine, lay a curving beach of creamy sand; westward the sea, pale green a mile from the shore, and deeply blue beyond the clamouring reef, whose misty spume for ever rose and fell the livelong day, and showed ghostly white at night.

It was at night time that young Denison, ex-supercargo of the wrecked brig Leonora first saw the place and took a huge liking to it. And the memories of the seven happy months he spent there remains with him still, though he has grown grizzled and respectable now and goes trading no more.

A white moon stood high in a cloudless sky when he bade farewell to the good-natured ruffian with whom, until two months previously, he had had the distinction of serving as supercargo. The village wherein Captain Bully Hayes and his motley rum-drinking crew had established themselves was six miles from Leassé, on the shores of the Utwé Harbour, at the bottom of which lay the once shapely Leonora, with her broken fore-topmast just showing above the water. For reasons that need not here be mentioned, Denison and the captain had quarrelled, and so the former was deeply touched and said goodbye with a husky throat when the burly skipper placed one of his two remaining bottles of gin in his hand and said he was a "damned young fool to take things up so hotly." So, without a further word, he swallowed the lump in his throat and stepped out quickly, fearing that some of the crew (none of whom knew of his going) might meet him ere he gained the beach and mingle their tears—for they all loved him well—with the precious bottle of gin.

For nearly an hour he walked along the sandy shore of a narrow and winding strip of low-lying land, separated from the high and wooded mainland by a slumbering lagoon, deep in parts but shallow at the south end where it joined the barrier reef. Here Denison crossed, for the tide had ebbed, and, gaining the shelving beach on the other side, he saw before him Mout Leassé village, standing out clearly in the blazing moonlight against the black edge of the mountain forest, which, higher up, was wrapped in fleecy mist. It was near to dawn, but, being tired and sleepy, the ex-supercargo lay down on the soft warm sand, away from the falling dew of the pendulous palm leaves, and slept till it came.

An hour after daylight he was in the village and being hugged and embraced by the inhabitants in general and Kusis, the headman, and his wife and daughter in particular. I have already mentioned that Denison was very young then; he would not permit such a thing now.

Still, although three-and-twenty years have passed since then, Denison often wishes he could live those seven months in Leassé over again, and let this, his latter-day respectability, go hang; because to men like him respectability means tradesmen's bills, and a deranged liver, and a feeling that he will die on a bed with his boots off, and be pawed about by shabby ghouls smelling of gin. There, it is true, he had no boots to die in had his time come suddenly, but he did not feel the loss of them except when he went hunting wild pigs with Kusis in the mountains. And though he had no boots, he was well off in more important things—to wit, ten pounds of negro-head tobacco, lots of fishing-tackle, a Winchester rifle and plenty of ammunition, a shirt and trousers of dungaree, heaps to eat and drink, and the light heart of a boy. What more could a young fool wish for—in the North-west Pacific. But I want to tell something of how Denison lived in a place where every prospect pleased, and where (from a theological point of view) only man was vile.


At daylight he would awaken, and, lying on his bed of mats upon the cane-work floor, listen to the song of the surf on the barrier reef a mile away. If it sounded quick and clear it meant no fishing in the blue water beyond, for the surf would be heavy and the current strong; if it but gently murmured, he and Kusis and a dozen other brown-skinned men (Denison was as brown as any of them) would eat a hurried meal of fish and baked taro, and then carry their red-painted canoes down to the water, and, paddling out through the passage in the reef, fish for bonito with thick rods of pua wood and baitless hooks of irridescent pearl shell.

Then, as the sun came out hot and strong and the trade wind flecked the ocean swell with white, they would head back for shining Leassé beach, on which the women and girls awaited their return, some with baskets in their hands to carry home the fish, and some with gourds of water which, as the fishermen bent their bodies low, they poured upon them to wash away the stains of salty spray.

An hour of rest has passed, and then a fat-faced, smiling girl (Denison dreams of her sometimes, even now) comes to the house to make a bowl of kava for the white man and Kusis before they go hunting the wild pig in the mountain forest. There is no ceremony about this kava-drinking as there is in conventional Samoa; fat-faced Sipi simply sits cross-legged upon the matted floor and pounds the green root with a rounded piece of jade upon a hollowed stone.

The kava is drunk, and then Kusis takes off his cumbrous girdle of grass and replaces it by a narrow band of closely-woven banana fibre, stained black and yellow (there be fashions in these parts of the world) and reaches down his pig-spear from the cross-beams overhead, while Tulpé, his wife, ties cinnet sandals upon the white man's feet. Then, good man and true, Kusis takes his pipe from his mouth and gives his wife a draw ere he goes, and the two men step outside upon the hot, gravelly path, Denison carrying his Winchester and Kusis leading two sad-faced mongrel dogs. As they pass along the village street other men join them, some carrying spears and some heavy muskets, and also leading more sad-faced dogs. Black-haired, oval-faced women and girls come to the doors of the houses and look indolently at the hunters, but they neither speak nor smile, for it is not the nature of the Strong's Islanders to speak when there is no necessity for words. Once, fifty years ago, when they were numbered by thousands, and their villages but a mile apart along the coast, it was different; now they are a broken and fast-vanishing race.

As the hunters, walking in single file, disappear into the deep jungle shades, the women and girls resume their daily tasks. Some, who squat upon the floor, with thighs and knees together and feet turned outward and backward, face curious little looms and weave girdles from the shining fibre of the banana stalk; others, who sit cross-legged, plait mats or hats of pandanus leaf for their men folk; while outside, in the cook-sheds, the younger children make ready the earthen ovens of red-hot stones to cook the sunset meal. Scarcely a word is spoken, though sometimes the women sing softly together as they weave and stitch.

And so another hour has gone, and the coco-palms along the shore begin to throw long lines of shadows across the sloping beach. Then far off a musket-shot sounds, and the women cease their work and listen for the yelping of the hunters' dogs as they rush at their wounded prey, battling fiercely for his life upon the thick carpet of forest leaves.

By and by the huntsmen come back, their brown skins dripping with sweat and their naked legs stained with the bright red clay of the sodden mountain-paths. Two of them carry slung on a pole a gaunt, razorbacked boar, with hideous yellow tusks curving backward from his long and blood-stained snout.

Again the patient women come forth with gourds of water; they pour it over the heads and bodies of the men, who dry their skins with shreds of white beaten bark; two sturdy boys light wisps of dry coconut leaves and pass the flames over the body of the boar in lieu of scalding, and the melancholy dogs sit around in a circle on their haunches and indulge in false hopes. Presently, one by one, the men follow Denison and Kusis into the latter's house and sit down to smoke and talk, while Sipi the Fat pounds more kava for them to drink. Then mats are unrolled and every one lies down; and as they sleep the sun touches the sea-rim, swarms of snowy gulls and sooty terns fly shoreward with lazily flapping wing to roost, a gleam of torchlight shows here and there along the village paths, and the island night has come.