My Friend the Beach-Comber by Andrew Lang

“Been in some near things in the islands?” said my friend the beach-comber; “I fancy I have.”

The beach-comber then produced a piece of luggage like a small Gladstone bag, which he habitually carried, and thence he extracted a cigar about the size of the butt of a light trout-rod.  He took a vesuvian out of a curious brown hollowed nut-shell, mounted in gold (the beach-comber, like Mycenæ in Homer, was polychrysos, rich in gold in all his equipments), and occupied himself with the task of setting fire to his weed.  The process was a long one, and reminded me of the arts by which the beach-comber’s native friends fire the root of a tree before they attack it with their stone tomahawks.  However, there was no use in trying to hurry the ancient mariner.  He was bound to talk while his cigar lasted, thereby providing his hearer with plenty of what is called “copy” in the profession of letters.

The beach-comber was a big man, loose (in physique only of course), broad, and black-bearded, his face about the colour of a gun-stock.  We called him by the nickname he bore (he bore it very good-naturedly), because he had spent the years of his youth among the countless little islands of the South Seas, especially among those which lie at “the back of beyond,” that is, on the far side of the broad shoulder of Queensland.  In these regions the white man takes his life and whatever native property he can annex in his hand, caring no more for the Aborigines’ Protection Society than for the Kyrle Company for diffusing stamped-leather hangings and Moorish lustre plates among the poor of the East-End.  The common beach-comber is usually an outcast from that civilization of which, in the islands, he is the only pioneer.  Sometimes he deals in rum, sometimes in land, most frequently in “black-birds”—that is, in coolies, as it is now usual to call slaves.  Not, of course, that all coolies are slaves.  My friend the beach-comber treated his dusky labourers with distinguished consideration, fed them well, housed them well, taught them the game of cricket, and dismissed them, when the term of their engagement was up, to their island homes.  He was, in fact, a planter, with a taste for observing wild life in out-of-the-way places.

“Yes, I have been in some near things,” he went on, when the trunk of his cigar was fairly ignited.  “Do you see these two front teeth?”

The beach-comber opened wide a cavernous mouth.  The late Mr. Macadam, who invented the system of making roads called by his name, allowed no stone to be laid on the way which the stone-breaker could not put in his mouth.  The beach-comber could almost have inserted a milestone.

I did not see “these two front teeth,” because, like the Spanish Fleet, they were not in sight.  But I understood my friend to be drawing my attention to their absence.

“I see the place where they have been,” I answered.

“Well, that was a near go,” said the beach-comber.  “I was running for my life before a pack of screeching naked beggars in the Admiralty Islands.  I had emptied my revolver, and my cartridges, Government ones, were all in a parcel—a confounded Government parcel—fastened with a strong brass wire.  Where’s the good of giving you cartridges, which you need in a hurry if you need them at all, in a case you can’t open without a special instrument?  Well, as I ran, and the spears whizzed round me, I tore at the wire with my teeth.  It gave at last, or my head would now be decorating a stake outside the chief’s pah.  But my teeth gave when the brass cord gave, and I’ll never lift a heavy table with them again.”

“But you got out the cartridges?”

“Oh yes.  I shot two of the beggars, and ‘purwailed on them to stop,’ and then I came within sight of the boats, and Thompson shouted, and the others bolted.  What a voice that fellow had!  It reminded me of that Greek chap I read about at school; he went and faced the Trojans with nothing in his hand, and they hooked it when they only heard him roar.  Poor Thompson! “and the beach-comber drank, in silence, to the illustrious dead.

“Who shot him?”

“A scientific kind of poop, a botanizing shaloot that was travelling around with a tin box on his back, collecting beetles and bird-skins.  Poor Thompson! this was how it happened.  He was the strongest fellow I ever saw; he could tear a whole pack of cards across with his hands.  That man was all muscle.  He and I had paddled this botanizing creature across to an island where some marooned fellow had built a hut, and we kept a little whisky in a bunk, and used the place sometimes for shooting or fishing.  It was latish one night, the botanist had not come home, I fell asleep, and left Thompson with the whisky.  I was awakened by hearing a shot, and there lay Thompson, stone-dead, a bullet in his forehead, and the naturalist with a smoking revolver in his hand, and trembling like an aspen leaf.  It seems he had lost his way, and by the time he got home, Thompson was mad drunk, and came for him with his fists.  If once he hit you, just in play, it was death, and the stranger knew that.  Thompson had him in a corner, and I am bound to say that shooting was his only chance.  Poor old Thompson!”

“And what was done to the other man?”

“Done! why there was no one to do anything, unless I had shot him, or marooned him.  No law runs in these parts.  Thompson was the best partner I ever had; he was with me in that lark with the tabooed pig.”

“What lark?”

“Oh, I’ve often spun you the yarn.”

“Never!”

“Well, it was like this.  Thompson and I, and some other chaps, started in a boat, with provisions, just prospecting about the islands.  So we went in and out among the straits—horrid places, clear water full of sharks, and nothing but mangroves on every side.  One of these sounds is just like another.  Once I was coming home in a coasting steamer, and got them to set me down on a point that I believed was within half-a-mile of my place.  Well, I was landed, and I began walking homewards, when I found I was on the wrong track, miles and miles of mangrove swamp, cut up with a dozen straits of salt water, lay between me and the station.  The first stretch of water I came to, gad!  I didn’t like it.  I kept prospecting for sharks very close before I swam it, with my clothes on my head.  I was in awful luck all the way, though,—not one of them had a snap at me.”

“But about the taboo pig?  Revenons à nos cochons!”

“I’m coming to that.  Well, we landed at an island we had never been on before, where there was a village of Coast natives.  A crowd of beehive-shaped huts, you know, the wall about three feet high, and all the rest roof, wattle, and clay, and moss, built as neat as a bird’s-nest outside, not very sweet inside.  So we landed and got out the grub, and marched up to the village.  Not a soul to be seen; not a black in the place.  Their gear was all cleaned out too; there wasn’t a net, nor a spear, nor a mat, nor a bowl (they’re great beggars for making pipkins), not a blessed fetich stone even, in the whole place.  You never saw anything so forsaken.  But just in the middle of the row of huts, you might call it a street if you liked, there lay, as happy as if he was by the fireside among the children in Galway, a great big fat beast of a hog.  Well, we couldn’t make out what had become of the people.  Thought we had frightened them away, only then they’d have taken the hog.  Suddenly, out of some corner, comes a black fellow making signs of peace.  He held up his hands to show he had no weapon in them, and then he held up his feet ditto.”

“Why on earth did he hold up his feet?”

“To show he wasn’t trailing a spear between his toes; that is a common dodge of theirs.  We made signs to him to come up, and up he came, speaking a kind of pigeon English.  It seems he was an interpreter by trade, paying a visit to his native village; so we tried to get out of him what it was all about.  Just what we might have expected.  A kid had been born in the village that day.”

“What had the birth of a kid got to do with it?”

“It’s like this, don’t you know.  Every tribe is divided into Coast natives and Bush natives.  One set lives by the sea, and is comparatively what you might call civilized.  The other set, their cousins, live in the Bush, and are a good deal more savage.  Now, when anything out of the way, especially anything of a fortunate kind, happens in one division of the tribe, the other division pops down on them, loots everything it can lay hands on, maltreats the women, breaks what’s too heavy to carry, and generally plays the very mischief.  The birth of a child is always celebrated in that way.”

“And don’t the others resist?”

“Resist!  No!  It would be the height of rudeness.  Do you resist when people leave cards at your house, ‘with kind inquiries’?  It’s just like that; a way they have of showing a friendly interest.”

“But what can be the origin of such an extraordinary custom?”

I don’t know.  Guess it has a kind of civilizing effect, as you’ll see.  Resources of civilization get handed on to the Bush tribes, but that can’t be what it was started for.  However, recently the tribes have begun to run cunning, and they hide themselves and all their goods when they have reason to expect a friendly visit.  This was what they had done the day we landed.  But, while we were jawing with the interpreter, we heard a yell to make your hair stand on end.  The Bush tribe came down on the village all in their war paint,—white clay; an arrangement, as you say, in black and white.  Down they came, rushed into every hut, rushed out again, found nothing, and an awful rage they were in.  They said this kind of behaviour was most ungentlemanly; why, where was decent feeling? where was neighbourliness?  While they were howling, they spotted the hog, and made for him in a minute; here was luncheon, anyhow,—pork chops.  So they soon had a fire, set a light to one of the houses in fact, and heaped up stones; that’s how they cook.  They cut you up in bits, wrap them in leaves—”

En papillotte?”

“Just that, and broil you on the hot stones.  They cook everything that way.”

“Are they cannibals?”

“Oh yes, in war-time.  Or criminals they’ll eat.  I’ve often heard the queer yell a native will give, quite a peculiar cry, when he is carrying a present of cold prisoner of war from one chief to another.  He cries out like that, to show what his errand is, at the border of the village property.”

“Before entering the Mark?” I said, for I had been reading Sir Henry Maine.

“The pah, the beggars about me call it,” said the beach-comber; “perhaps some niggers you’ve been reading about call it the Mark.  I don’t know.  But to be done with this pig.  The fire was ready, and they were just going to cut the poor beast’s throat with a green-stone knife, when the interpreter up and told them ‘hands off.’  ‘That’s a taboo pig,’ says he.  ‘A black fellow that died six months ago that pig belonged to.  When he was dying, and leaving his property to his friends, he was very sorry to part with the pig, so he made him taboo; nobody can touch him.  To eat him is death.’

“Of course this explained why that pig had been left when all the other live stock and portable property was cleared out.  Nobody would touch a taboo pig, and that pig, I tell you, was tabooed an inch thick.  The man he belonged to had been a Tohunga, and still ‘walked,’ in the shape of a lizard.  Well, the interpreter, acting most fairly, I must say, explained all this to the Bush tribe, and we went down to the boat and lunched.  Presently a smell of roast pork came drifting down on the wind.  They had been hungry and mad after their march, and they were cooking the taboo pig.  The interpreter grew as white as a Kaneka can; he knew something would happen.

“Presently the Bush fellows came down to the boat, licking their lips.  There hadn’t been much more than enough to go round, and they accepted some of our grub, and took to it kindly.

“‘Let’s offer them some rum,’ says Thompson; he never cruised without plenty aboard.  ‘No, no,’ says I; ‘tea, give them tea.’  But Thompson had a keg of rum out, and a tin can, and served round some pretty stiff grog.  Now, would you believe it, these poor devils had never tasted spirits before?  Most backward race they were.  But they took to the stuff, and got pretty merry, till one of them tried to move back to the village.  He staggered up and down, and tumbled against rocks, and finally he lay flat and held on tight.  The others, most of them, were no better as soon as they tried to move.  A rare fright they were in!  They began praying and mumbling; praying, of all things, to the soul of the taboo pig!  They thought they were being punished for the awful sin they had committed in eating him.  The interpreter improved the occasion.  He told them their faults pretty roundly.  Hadn’t he warned them?  Didn’t they know the pig was taboo?  Did any good ever come of breaking a taboo?  The soberer fellows sneaked off into the bush, the others lay and snoozed till the Coast tribe came out of hiding, and gave it to them pretty warm with throwing sticks and the flat side of waddies.  I guess the belief in taboo won’t die out of that Bush tribe in a hurry.”

“It was like the companions of Odysseus devouring the oxen of the Sun,” I said.

“Very likely,” replied the beach-comber.  “Never heard of the parties.  They’re superstitious beggars, these Kanekas.  You’ve heard of buying a thing ‘for a song’?  Well, I got my station for a whistle.  They believe that spirits twitter and whistle, and you’ll hardly get them to go out at night, even with a boiled potato in their hands, which they think good against ghosts, for fear of hearing the bogies.  So I just went whistling, ‘Bonny Dundee’ at nights all round the location I fancied, and after a week of that, not a nigger would go near it.  They made it over to me, gratis, with an address on my courage and fortitude.  I gave them some blankets in; and that’s how real property used to change hands in the Pacific.”