Reo, The Fisherman

by Louis Becke

 

'Reo was a short, squat Malayan, with a face like a skate, barring his eyes, which were long, narrow slits, apparently expressing nothing but supreme indifference to the world in general. But they would light up sometimes with a merry twinkle when the old rogue would narrate some of his past villainies.

He came to Samoa in the old, old days—long before Treaties, and Imperial Commissioners, and other gilded vanities were dreamt of by us poor, hard-working traders. He seemed to have dropped from the sky when one afternoon, as Tom Denison, the supercargo, and some of his friends sat on Charley the Russian's verandah, drinking lager, he marched up to them, sat down on the steps, and said, "Good evening."

"Hallo," said Schlüter, the skipper of the Anna Godeffrey. "Who are you? Where do you come from?"

'Reo waved a short, stumpy and black clay pipe to and fro, and replied vaguely—

"Oh, from somewhere."

Some one laughed, surmising correctly enough that he had run away from a ship; then they remembered that no vessel had even touched at Apia for a month. (Later on he told Denison that he had jumped overboard from a Baker's Island guano-man, as she was running down the coast, and swum ashore, landing at a point twenty miles distant from Apia. The natives in the various villages had given him food, so when he reached the town he was not hungry.)

"What do you want, anyway?" asked Schlüter.

"Some tobacco, please. And a dollar or two. I can pay you back."

"When?" said Hamilton the pilot incredulously.

The pipe described a semicircle. "Oh, to-morrow night—before, perhaps."

They gave him some tobacco and matches, and four Bolivian "iron" half-dollars. He got up and went across to Volkner's combined store and grog shanty, over the way.

"He's gone to buy a bottle of square-face," said Hamilton.

"He deserves it," said Denison gloomily. "A man of his age who could jump overboard and swim ashore to this rotten country should be presented with a case of gin—and a knife to cut his throat with after he has finished it."

In about ten minutes the old fellow came out of Volkner's store, carrying two or three stout fishing-lines, several packets of hooks, and half a dozen ship biscuits. He grinned as he passed the group on the verandah, and then squatting down on the sward near by began to uncoil the lines and bend on the hooks.

Denison was interested, went over to him, and watched the swift, skilful manner in which the thin brown fingers worked.

"Where are you going to fish?" he inquired.

The broad, flat face lit up. "Outside in the dam deep water—sixty, eighty fa'am."

Denison left him and went aboard the ancient, cockroach-infested craft of which he was the heartbroken supercargo. Half an hour later 'Reo paddled past the schooner in a wretched old canoe, whose outrigger was so insecurely fastened that it threatened to come adrift every instant. The old man grinned as he recognised Denison; then, pipe in mouth, he went boldly out through the passage between the lines of roaring surf into the tumbling blue beyond.

At ten o'clock, just as the supercargo and the skipper were taking their last nip before turning in, the ancient slipped quietly alongside in his canoe, and clambered on deck. In his right hand he carried a big salmon-like fish, weighing about 20 lbs. Laying it down on the deck, he pointed to it.

"Plenty more in canoe like that. You want some more?"

Denison went to the side and looked over. The canoe was loaded down to the gunwale with the weight of fish—fish that the lazy, loafing Apian natives caught but rarely. The old man passed up two or three more, took a glass of grog, and paddled ashore.

Next morning he repaid the borrowed money and showed Denison fifteen dollars—the result of his first night's work in Samoa. The saloon-keepers and other white people said he was a treasure. Fish in Apia were dear, and hard to get.


On the following Sunday a marriage procession entered the Rarotongan chapel in Matafele, and Tetarreo (otherwise *Reo) was united to one of the prettiest and not very disreputable native girls in the town, whose parents recognised that 'Reo was likely to prove an eminently lucrative and squeezable son-in-law. Denison was best man, and gave the bride a five-dollar American gold piece (having previously made a private arrangement with the bridegroom that he was to receive value for it in fish).

'Reo's wife's relatives built the newly-married couple a house on Matautu Point, and 'Reo spent thirty-five dollars in giving the bride's local connections a feast. Then the news spread, and cousins and second cousins and various breeds of aunts and half-uncles travelled up to Matautu Point to partake of his hospitality. He did his best, but in a day or so remarked sadly that he could not catch fish fast enough in a poor canoe. If he had a boat he could make fifty dollars a week, he said; and with fifty dollars a week he could entertain his wife's honoured friends continuously and in a befitting manner. The relatives consulted, and, thinking they had "a good thing," subscribed, and bought a boat (on credit) from the German firm, giving a mortgage on a piece of land as security. Then they presented 'Reo with the boat, with many complimentary speeches, and sat down to chuckle at the way they would "make the old fool work," and the "old fool" went straight away to the American Consul and declared himself to be a citizen of the United States and demanded his country's protection, as he feared his wife's relatives wanted to jew him out of the boat they had given him.

The Consul wrote out something terrifying on a big sheet of paper, and tacked it on to the boat, and warned the surprised relatives that an American man-of-war would protect 'Reo with her guns, and then 'Reo went inside his house and beat his wife with a canoe paddle, and chased her violently out of the place, and threatened her male relatives with a large knife and fearful language.

Then he took the boat round the other side of the island and sold it for two hundred dollars to a trader, and came back to Apia to Denison and asked for a passage to Tutuila, and the German firm entered into and took possession of the mortgaged land, whilst the infuriated relatives tore up and down the beach demanding 'Reo's blood in a loud voice. 'Reo, with his two hundred dollars in his trousers' pocket, sat on the schooner's rail and looked at them stolidly and without ill-feeling.


Denison landed the ancient at Leone Bay on Tutuila, for he had taken kindly to the old scoundrel, who had many virtues, and could give points to any one, white or brown, in the noble art of deep-sea fishing. This latter qualification endeared him greatly to young Tom, who, when he was not employed in keeping the captain sober, or bringing him round after an attack of "D.T.'s," spent all his spare time in fishing, either at sea or in port.

'Reo settled at Leone, and made a good deal of money buying copra from the natives. The natives got to like him—he was such a conscientious old fellow. When he hung the baskets of copra on the iron hook of the steelyard, which was marked to weigh up to 150 lbs., he would call their attention to the marks as he moved the heavy "pea" along the yard. Then, one day, some interfering Tongan visitor examined the pea and declared that it had been taken from a steelyard designed to weigh up to 400 lbs. 'Reo was so hurt at the insinuation that he immediately took the whole apparatus out beyond the reef in his boat and indignantly sunk it in fifty fathoms of water. Then he returned to his house, and he and his wife (he had married again) bade a sorrowful farewell to his friends, and said his heart was broken by the slanders of a vile Tongan pig from a mission school. He would, he said, go back to Apia, where he was respected by all who knew him. Then he began to pack up. Some of the natives sided with the Tongan, some with 'Reo, and in a few minutes a free fight took place on the village green, and 'Reo stood in his doorway and watched it from his narrow, pig-like eyes; then, being of a magnanimous nature, he walked over and asked three stout youths, who had beaten the Tongan into a state of unconsciousness, and were jumping on his body, not to hurt him too much.

About midnight 'Reo's house was seen to be in flames, and the owner, uttering wild, weird screams of "Fia ola! Fia ola!" ("Mercy! Mercy!") fled down the beach to his boat, followed by his wife, a large, fat woman, named appropriately enough Taumafa (Abundance). They dashed into the water, clambered into the boat, and began pulling seaward for their lives. The villagers, thinking they had both gone mad, gazed at them in astonishment, and then went back and helped themselves to the few goods saved from the burning house.

As soon as 'Reo and the good wife were out of sight of the village they put about, ran the boat into a little bay further down the coast, planted a bag containing seven hundred dollars, with the best of the trade goods (salved before the fire was discovered), and then set sail for Apia to "get justice from the Consul."

The Consul said it was a shocking outrage, the captain of U.S.S. Adirondack concurred, and so the cruiser, with the injured, stolid-faced 'Reo on board, steamed off to Leone Bay and gave the astounded natives twelve hours to make up their minds as to which they would do—pay 'Reo one thousand dollars in cash or have their town burnt. They paid six hundred, all they could raise, and then, in a dazed sort of way, sat down to meditate as they saw the Adirondack steam off again.

'Reo gave his wife a small share of the plunder and sent her home to her parents. When Tom Denison next saw him he was keeping a boarding house at Levuka, in Fiji. He told Denison he was welcome to free board and lodging for a year. 'Reo had his good points, as I have said.