A Christmas Eve in the Far South Seas

by Louis Becke

Donald MacBride and myself were the only Britishers living on one of the North Pacific island lagoons when Christmas of 1880 drew near, and we determined to celebrate it in a manner that would fill our German and American trading rivals throughout the group with envy. MacBride was a bony, red-headed Scotchman, with a large heart and a small, jealous, half-caste wife. The latter acquisition ruled him with a rod of iron, much to his financial and moral benefit, but nevertheless agreed with me that we—Donald, she and myself—ought to show the Americans and the 'Dutchmen' how an English Christmas should be celebrated. But as Sera was a half-caste native of the Pelews, and had never been to a civilised country, she also concurred with me that Donald and myself should run the show, which, although I was not a married man, was to take place in my house on account of the greater space available. Donald, she said, wanted to have a 'hakkise'; so we bought a nanny-goat from Ludwig Wolfen, the German trader at Molok, and one evening—the 23rd of December—I helped Sera to drive and drag the unsuspecting creature home to her husband's place to the slaughter. (I may as well say at once that MacBride's nanny-goat haggis was a hideous failure, and my boat's crew, to whom it was handed over, with many strong expressions about MacBride's beastly provincial taste, said that it smelt good, like shark's liver, but was not at all so juicy.)

Meanwhile, Wolfen, a fat, good-hearted Teuton, with a face like a full moon in a fog, called upon me, and remarked in a squashy tone of voice, superinduced by too many years of lager beer, and its resultant adipose tissue, that he and Peter Huysmans, his neighbour, would feel very much hurt if we did not invite them to participate in the festivities. I said that 'Blazy-head' (for so we called dear old MacBride) and myself would be delighted; whereupon Wolfen, who had once, when he was a sailor on an English ship, spent a Christmas in a public-house somewhere in the vicinity of the East India Docks, said that the correct thing for us to do would be to have a Christmas cake; also, he suggested we should invite Tom Devine and Charley de Buis, the two American traders who lived across the lagoon, to join the party. Being aware of the fact that, from trade jealousies, there had hitherto been a somewhat notorious bitterness of feeling between my German fellow-trader and the two Americans, I shook his hand warmly, said that I was delighted to see that he could forgive and forget, and that I should that moment send my boat across the lagoon to Devine and Charley de Buis with a written invitation, and ask them to favour us with their company; also, that as Mrs Charley—who was a Samoan half-caste girl—was skilled in baking bread, perhaps she would lend Mesdames MacBride, Wolfen and Huysmans her assistance in making a Christmas cake, the size of which should cause the native population to sit up and respect us as men of more than ordinary intelligence and patriotism.

On the evening of the 24th, three whale-boats, attended by a flotilla of small native canoes, sailed into the little sandy-beached nook upon the shores of which the trading station was situated. The three boats were steered by the Messrs Peter Huysmans, Charles de Buis and Thomas Devine, who were accompanied by their wives, children and numerous female relatives, all of the latter being clad in their holiday attire of new mats, and with their hair excessively anointed with scented coco-nut oil, scarlet hibiscus flowers behind their ears, and necklaces of sweet-smelling pieces of pandanus drupes.

MacBride, Mrs MacBride and I received them the moment they stepped out of the boats, and then Ludwig Wolfen, who was disposed in the background with an accordion, and seated on a gin case, played 'The Star Spangled Banner,' to the accompaniment of several native drums, beaten by his wife and her sister and brothers. Then my boatman—a stalwart Maori half-caste—advanced from out the thronging crowd of natives which surrounded us, and planted in the sand a British red ensign attached to a tall bamboo pole, and called for three cheers for the Queen of England, and three for the President of the United States. This at once gave offence to Ludwig Wolfen, who asked what was the matter with the Emperor of Germany; whereupon Bill Grey (the Maori) took off his coat and asked him what he meant, and a fierce encounter was only avoided by half a dozen strapping natives seizing Billy and making him sit down on the sand, while the wrathful Ludwig was hustled by Donald MacBride and Mrs Ludwig and threatened with a hammering if he insulted the gathering by his ill-timed and injudicious remarks about a foreign potentate. (Ludwig, I regret to say, had begun his Christmas on the previous evening.)

But we were all too merry, and too filled with right good down comradeship to let such a trifle as this disturb the harmony of our first Christmas foregathering; and presently Bill Grey, his dark, handsome face wreathed in a sunny smile, came up to the sulky and rightly-indignant trader with outstretched hand, and said he was sorry. And Wolfen, good-hearted German that he was, grasped it warmly, and said he was sorry too; and then we all trooped up to the house and sat down, only to rise up again with our glasses clinking together as we drank to our wives and ourselves and the coming Christmas, and to the brown smiling faces of the people around us, who wondered why we grew merry so suddenly; for sometimes, as they knew, we had all quarrelled with one another, and bitter words had passed; for so it ever is, and ever shall be, even in the far South Seas, when questions of 'trade' and 'money' come between good fellowship and old-time camaraderie. And then sweet, dark-eyed Sera, MacBride's young wife, took up her guitar and sang us love songs in the old Lusitanian tongue of her father; and Tom Devine, the ex-boat-steerer, and Charley de Buis, the reckless; and Peter Huysmans, the red-faced, white-haired old Dutchman, all joined hands and danced around the rough table; while Billy Grey and Ludwig Wolfen stood on the top of it and sang, or tried to sing, 'Home Sweet Home'; and the writer of this memory of those old Pacific days sat in a chair in the doorway and wondered where we should all be the next year. For, as we sang and danced, and the twang, twang of Sera's guitar sounded through the silent night without, Tom Devine, the American, held up his hand to MacBride, and silence fell.

'Boys,' he said, 'let us drink to the memory of the far-off faces of those dear ones whom we never may see again!'

He paused a moment, and then caught sight of Sera as she bent over her guitar with downcast eyes; 'And to those who are with us now—our wives and our children, and our friends! Drink, my boys; and the first man who, either to-night or to-morrow, talks about business and dirty, filthy dollars, shall get fired out right away before he knows where he is; for this is Christmas time—and, Sera MacBride, why the devil don't you play something and keep me from making a fool of myself?'

So Sera, with a twist of her lithe body and a merry gleam in her full, big eyes, sang another song; and then long, bony MacBride came over to her and kissed her on her fair, smooth forehead, whispered something that we did not hear, and pointed to Charley de Buis, who stood, glass in hand, at the furthest corner of the big room, his thin, suntanned face as grave and sober as that of an English judge.

'Gentlemen'—(then sotto voce to the chairman in the doorway, 'Just fancy us South Sea loafers calling ourselves gentlemen!')—'gentlemen, we are here to spend a good time, and I move that we quit speech-making and start the women on that cake. Tom Devine and myself are, as you know, members of two of the First Families in America, and only came to the South Seas to wear out our old clothes—'

'Shut up,' said Devine; 'we don't want to hear anything about the First American families; this is an English Christmas, with full-blooded South Sea trimmings. Off you go, you women, and start on the cake.'

So Charley de Buis 'shut up,' and then the women, headed by Sera and Mary Devine, trooped off to the cook-house to beat up eggs for the cake, and left us to ourselves. When it drew near midnight they returned, and Peter Huysmans arose, and, twisting his grizzled moustaches, said,—

'Mine boys, will you led me dell you dot now is coming der morn ven Jesus Christ vos born? And vill you blease, Mary Devine, dell dose natives outside to stop those damdt drums vile I speaks? Und come here you, MacBride, mit your red het, und you, Ludwig Wolfen, and you Tom Devine, und you Charley de Buis, you wicked damdt devil, und you, Tom Denison, you saucy Australian boy, mit your curlt moustache and your svell vite tuck suit; und led us join our hands together, and agree to have no more quarrellings und no more angry vorts. For vy should ve quarrel, as our good friendt says, over dirty dollars, ven dere is room enough for us all on dis lagoon to get a decent livings? Und den ve should try und remember dot ve, none of us, is going to live for ever, and ven ve is dead, ve is dead a damdt long time. But now, mine friendts, I vill say no more, vor I am dry; so here's to all our good healths, and let us bromise one another not to haf no more angry vorts.'

And so we all gathered around the big table, and, grasping each other's hands, raised our glasses and drank together without speaking, for there was something—we knew not what—that lay behind Dutch Peter's little speech which made us think. Presently, when a big and gaudy German-made cuckoo clock in the room struck twelve, even reckless Charley de Buis forgot his old joke about Tom Denison's 'damned old squawking British duck,' as he called the little painted bird, and we all went outside, and sat smoking our pipes on the wide verandah, and watching the flashing torchlights of the fishing canoes as they paddled slowly to and fro over the smooth waters of the sleeping lagoon. Then, almost ere we knew it, the quick red sun had turned the long, black line of palms on Karolyne to purple, and then to shining green, and Christmas Day had come.


To-night, as a chill December wind wails through the leafless elms and chestnuts of this quiet Kentish village, I think of that far-away Christmas eve, and the rough, honest, sun-browned faces of the men who were around me, and pressed my hand when Peter Huysmans spoke of home and Christmas, and Tom Devine of 'the dear faces whom we never might see again.' For only one, with the writer, is left. MacBride and his gentle, sweet-voiced Sera went to their death a year or two later in the savage and murderous Solomons; Wolfen and his wife and children perished at sea when the Sadie Foster schooner turned turtle off the Marshalls; and Devine and Charley de Buis, comrades to the last, sailed away to the Moluccas in a ten-ton boat and were never heard of again—their fate is one of the many mysteries of the deep. Peter Huysmans is alive and well, and only a year ago I grasped his now trembling hand in mighty London, and spoke of our meeting on Milli Lagoon.

And then again, in a garish and tinselled City bar, we raised our glasses and drank to the memory of those who had gone before.