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A short story by Louis Becke

"The Best Asset In A Fool's Estate"

Title:     "The Best Asset In A Fool's Estate"
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

A slight smile lit up the clear-cut, sombre face of Lawson from Safune, as looking up from his boat at Etheridge's house he saw the glint of many lights shining through the walls of the roughly-built store. It was well on towards midnight when he had left Safune and sailed round to Etheridge's, a distance of twelve or fifteen miles, and as his boat touched the sand the first streaks of dawn were changing the dead whiteness of the beach into a dull grey--soon to brighten into a creamy yellow as the sun pierced the heavy land-mist.

A native or two, wrapped from head to foot in the long _lava lava_ of white calico, passed him as he followed the windings of the track to Etheridge's, but gave him no sign of greeting. Had he been any one of the few other white men living on Savaii the dark men would have stopped him and, native-like, inquired the reason of his early visit to their town. But they knew Lawson too well. _Mataaitu_ they called him--devil-faced. And in this they were not far wrong, for Lawson, with his dark olive skin, jet black beard, and eyes that belied the ever-smiling lips, was not a man whom people would be unanimous in trusting.

The natives knew him better than did his few white acquaintances in Samoa, for here, among them, the mask that hid his inner nature from his compeers was sometimes put aside, though never thrown away. But Etheridge, the hot-blooded young Englishman and friend of six months' standing, thought and spoke of him as "the best fellow in the world."

Etheridge had been taking stock, and the wearisome work had paled his usually florid features. His face flushed with pleasure at Lawson's quiet voice:--

"Hard at it, Etheridge? I don't know which looks the paler--you or Lalia. Why on earth didn't you send for me sooner? Any one would think you were some poor devil of a fellow trading for the Dutchmen instead of being an independent man. Now, I'm hungry and want breakfast--that is, if Lalia isn't too tired to get it," and he looked compassionately at Etheridge's young half-caste wife, sister to his own.

"I'm not tired," said the girl, quietly. "I've had easy tasks--counting packets of fish-hooks, grosses of cotton, and things like that. Billy wouldn't let me help him with the prints and heavy things," and with the faintest shadow of a smile on her lips she passed through into the sitting-room and thence outside to the little thatched cook-house a few yards away. With ardent infatuation Etheridge rested his blue eyes on the white-robed, slender figure as she stood at the door and watched the Niue cook light his fire for an early cup of coffee--the first overture to breakfast at Etheridge's.

"By Jove, Lawson, I'm the luckiest man in Samoa to get such a wife as Lalia--and I only a new-chum to the Islands. I believe she'd work night and day if I'd allow it. And if it hadn't been for you I'd never have met her at all, but would have married some fast creature who'd have gone through me in a month and left me a dead-broken beachcomber."

"Yes," said Lawson, "she _is_ a good girl, and, except her sister, about the only half-caste I ever knew whom I would trust implicitly. Their mother was a Hervey Island woman, as I told you, and Lalia has been with Terere and me all over Polynesia, and I think I know her nature. She's fond of you, Etheridge, in her quiet, undemonstrative way, but she's a bit shy yet. You see, you don't speak either Rarotongan or Samoan, and half-caste wives hate talking English. Now, tell me, what is it worrying you? You haven't had another attack?"

"Yes," said the younger man, "I have--and a bad one, too, and that's why I sent for you. The stocktaking is nothing; but I was afraid I might get another that would stiffen me properly. Look here, Lawson, you've been a true friend to me. You picked me up six months ago a drunken, half-maddened beast in Apia and saved my life, reason, and money, and----"

"Bosh!" said Lawson, taking his coffee from the hand of Etheridge's wife; "don't think of it, my boy. Every man goes a bit crooked sometimes; so don't thank me too much."

Etheridge waited till his wife was gone and then resumed: "I've been horribly scared, Lawson, over this," and he placed his hand over his heart, "I was lifting a case of biscuits when I dropped like a pithed bullock. When I came to, Lalia was bathing my face.... I feel pretty shaky still. The doctor at Goddeffroy's warned me, too--said I'd go off suddenly if I wasn't careful. My father and one brother died like that. And I want to talk things over with you in case, you know." Lawson nodded.

"Everything I have is for her, Lawson--land, house, trade, and money. You're pretty sure there's no irregularity in that will of mine, aren't you?"

"Sure. It's very simply written. It's properly witnessed, and would hold in any court of law if contested. And perhaps your people in Australia might do that."

Etheridge reddened. "No; I cut adrift from 'em long ago. Grog, you know. Beyond yourself and Lalia, I haven't a soul who'll bother about me. I think, Lawson, I'll take a run up to Apia and see the Dutch doctor again. Fearful cur, am I not?"

"Come, Etheridge," and Lawson laid his smooth, shapely hand--how dishonest are shapely hands!--on the other's arm. "You're a little down. Anything wrong with one's heart always gives a man a bad shaking. There's Lalia calling us to breakfast, so I won't say any more but this: Even if Lalia wasn't my wife's sister, and anything happened to you, there's always a home for her in my house. I'd do that for your sake alone, old man, putting aside the principle I go on of showing respect to any white man's wife, even if she were a Oahu girl and had rickety ideas of morality."

When Lawson had first met him and had carried him down to his station on Savaii, nursed him through his illness, and treated him like a brother, Etheridge, with the impulsive confidence of his simple nature, poured out his thanks and told his history, and eagerly accepted Lawson's suggestion to try his hand at trading, instead of continuing his erratic wanderings--wanderings which could only end in his "going broke" at Tahiti or Honolulu, Fifteen miles or so away, Lawson said, there was a village with a good opening for a trader. How much could he put into it? Well, he had L500 with him, and there was another thousand in Sydney--the last of five. Ample, said his host. So one day the land was bought, a house and store put up, and Etheridge commenced life as a trader.

The strange tropic beauty of the place and the ways of the people soon cast their spell over Etheridge's imaginative nature, and he was as happy as a man possibly could be--with a knowledge that his life hung by a thread. How slender that thread was Lawson knew, perhaps, better than he. The German doctor had said, "You must dell him to be gareful, Mr. Lawson. Any excidemend, any zooden drouble mit anydings; or too much visky midout any excidemends, and he drop dead. I dell you."


A month or so after he had settled, Etheridge paid his weekly visit to Lawson, and met Lalia.

"This is my wife's sister," said Lawson; "she has been on a visit to some friends in Tutuila, and came back in the _Iserbrook?_"

The clear-cut, refined, and beautiful features of the girl did their work all too quickly on Etheridge. He was not a sensualist, only a man keenly susceptible to female beauty, and this girl was. beautiful--perhaps not so beautiful as her sister, Terere, Lawson's wife, but with a softer and more tender light in her full, dark eyes. And Lawson smiled to himself when Etheridge asked him to come outside and smoke when his wife and her sister had said good-night. A student of human nature, he had long ago read the simple mind of Etheridge as he would an open book, and knew what was coming. They went outside and talked--that is, Etheridge did. Lawson listened and smoked. Then he put a question to the other man.


"Of course I will, Lawson; do you think I'm scoundrel enough to dream of anything else? We'll go up to Apia and get married by the white missionary."

Lawson laughed in his quiet way. "I wouldn't think you a scoundrel at all, Etheridge. I may as well tell you that I'm not married to her sister. We neglected doing that when I lived in the eastward groups, and no one in Samoa is any the wiser, and wouldn't think anything of it if they were. But although I'm only a poor devil of a trader, I'm a man of principle in some things. Lalia is but a child, so to speak, and I'm her natural protector. Now, you're a fellow of some means, and if anything did happen to you she wouldn't get a dollar if she wasn't legally your wife. The consul would claim everything until he heard from your relatives. And she's very young, Etheridge, and you've told me often enough that your heart's pretty dicky. Don't think me a brute."

Etheridge grasped his hand and wrung it. "No, no--a thousand times no. You're the best-hearted fellow in the world, and I honour you all the more, Lawson. Will you ask her to-morrow?"

Perhaps if he had heard the manner of Lawson's asking it would have puzzled his simple brain. And the subdued merriment of the two sisters might have caused him to wonder still more.

A week or so after, Etheridge and the two sisters went up to Apia. Lawson was unable to go. Copra was coming in freely, he had said with a smile, and he was too poor to run away from business--even to the wedding of his own wife's sister.


As Etheridge and his young wife came out of the mission church some natives and white loafers stood around and watched them.

"Ho, Magalo," said one, "is not that _teine_, the sister of the wife of _Mataaitu_ the black-visaged _papalagi?_"

"Aye," answered a skinny old hag, carrying a basket of water-bottles, "'tis she, and the other is Terere. I lived with them once at Tutuila. She who is now made a wife and looketh so good and holy went away but a year ago with the captain of a ship--a pig of a German--and now, look you, she marrieth an Englishman."

The other natives laughed, and then an ugly fat-faced girl with lime-covered head and painted cheeks called out "_Papatetele!_" and Terere turned round and cursed them in good English.

"What does that mean?" said a white man to Flash Harry from Saleimoa--a man full of island lore.

"Why, it means as the bride isn't all as she purfesses to be. Them pretty soft-lookin' ones like her seldom is, in Samoa or anywhere else."


The day following the stock-taking Etheridge went to Apia--and never came back.

One night a native tapped gently at Lawson's window and handed him a note. As he read Terere with a sleepy yawn awoke, and, stretching one rounded arm out at full length, let it fall lazily on the mat-bed.

"What is it, Harry?"

"Get up, d------ you! Etheridge is dead, and I'm going to take Lalia up to Apia as quick as I can. Why the h---- couldn't he die here?"

A rapid vision of unlimited presents from the rich young widow passed through the mind of Terere--to whom the relations that had formerly existed between her and Lawson were well known--as she and he sped along in his boat to Etheridge's. Lalia received the news with much equanimity and a few tears, and then leaving Terere in charge, she got into the boat and rolled a cigarette. Lawson was in feverish haste. He was afraid the consul would be down and baulk his rapid but carefully arranged scheme. At Safune he sent his crew of two men ashore to his house for a breaker of water, and then once they were out of sight he pushed off and left them. They were in the way and might spoil everything. The breeze was strong, and that night Lawson and Lalia, instead of being out in the open sea beating up to Apia, were ashore in the sitting-room of the white missionary house on the other side of Savaii.

"I am indeed glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Lawson. Your honourable impulse deserves commendation. I have always regretted the fact that a man like you whose reputation as an educated and intelligent person far above that of most traders here is not unknown to me"--Lawson smiled sweetly--"should not alone set at defiance the teaching of Holy Writ, but tacitly mock at _our_ efforts to inculcate a higher code of morality in these beautiful islands. Ere long I trust I may make the acquaintance of your brother-in-law, Mr. Etheridge, and his wife."

Lawson smiled affably, and a slight tinge suffused the creamy cheek of Lalia.

"And now, Mr. Lawson, as you are so very anxious to get back home I will not delay. Here are my wife and my native assistant as witnesses. Stand up, please."


"Get in, you little beast," said Lawson, as he bundled Lalia into the boat and started back home, "and don't fall overboard. I don't want to lose the Best Asset in that Fool's Estate."


When the consul, a week later, came down to take possession of Etheridge's "estate," he called in at Safune to ask Lawson to come and help him to take an inventory. Terere met him with a languid smile, and, too lazy perhaps to speak English, answered his questions in Samoan.

"He's married and gone," she said.

"Married? Aren't _you_ Mrs. Lawson?" said the bewildered consul, in English.

"Not now, sir; my sister is. Will you take me to Apia in your boat, please?"

And that is how Lawson, the _papalagi mativa_ (poor white) and "the best-hearted fellow in the world," became a _mau aha_--a man of riches, and went, with the Best Asset in Etheridge's estate, the calm-eyed Lalia, to start a hotel in--well, no matter where.

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: "The Best Asset In A Fool's Estate"