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A short story by Gilbert Parker

An Amiable Revenge

Title:     An Amiable Revenge
Author: Gilbert Parker [More Titles by Parker]

Whenever any one says to me that civilisation is a failure, I refer him to certain records of Tonga, and tell him the story of an amiable revenge. He is invariably convinced that savages can learn easily the forms of convention and the arts of government--and other things. The Tongans once had a rough and coarsely effective means for preserving order and morality, but the whole scheme was too absurdly simple. Now, with a Constitution and a Sacred Majesty, and two Houses of Parliament, and a native Magistracy, they show that they are capable of becoming European in its most pregnant meaning. As the machinery has increased the grist for the mill has grown. There was a time when a breach of the Seventh Commandment was punished in Tonga with death, and it was therefore rarely committed. It is no rarity now--so does law and civilisation provide opportunities for proving their existence.

On landing at Nukalofa, the capital of Tonga, some years ago, I naturally directed my steps towards the residence of the British consul. The route lay along an arc of emerald and opal shore, the swaying cocoa-palms overhead, and native huts and missionary conventicles hidden away in coverts of ti-trees, hibiscus bushes, and limes; the sensuous, perfume-ladened air pervading all. I had seen the British flag from the coral-bulwarked harbour, but could not find it now. Leaving the indolent village behind, I passed the Palace, where I beheld the sacred majesty of Tonga on the veranda sleepily flapping the flies from his aged calves, and I could not find that flag. Had I passed it? Was it yet to come? I leaned against a bread-fruit tree and thought upon it. The shore was deserted. Nobody had taken any notice of me; even the German steamer Lubeck had not brought a handful of the population to the Quay.

I was about to make up my mind to go back to the Lubeck and sulk, when a native issued from the grove at my left and blandly gazed upon me as he passed. He wore a flesh-coloured vala about the loins, a red pandanus flower in his ear, and a lia-lia of hibiscus blossoms about his neck. That was all. Evidently he was not interested in me, for he walked on. I choked back my feelings of hurt pride, and asked him in an off-hand kind of way, and in a sort of pigeon English, if he could tell me where the British consul lived. The stalwart subject of King George Tabou looked at me gravely for an instant, then turned and motioned down the road. I walked on beside him, improperly offended by his dignified airs, his coolness of body and manner, and what I considered the insolent plumpness and form of his chest and limbs.

He was a harmony in brown and red. Even his hair was brown. I had to admit to myself that in point of comeliness I could not stand the same scrutiny in the same amount of costume. Perhaps that made me a little imperious, a little superior in manner. Reducing my English to his comprehension as I measured it--he bowed when I asked him if he understood--I explained to him many things necessary for the good of his country. Remembering where I was, I expressed myself in terms that were gentle though austere regarding the King, and reproved the supineness and stupidity of the Crown Prince. Lamenting the departed puissance of the sons of Tongatabu, I warmed to my subject, telling this savage who looked at me with so neutral a countenance how much I deplored the decadence of his race. I bade him think of the time when the Tongans, in token of magnanimous amity, rubbed noses with the white man, and of where those noses were now--between the fingers of the Caucasian. He appeared becomingly attentive, and did me the honour before I began my peroration to change the pandanus flower from the ear next to me to the other.

I had just rounded off my last sentence when he pointed to a house, half-native, half-European, in front of which was a staff bearing the British flag. With the generosity which marks the Englishman away from home I felt in my pockets and found a sixpence. I handed it to my companion; and with a "Talofa" the only Tongan I knew--I passed into the garden of the consulate. The consul himself came to the door when I knocked on the lintel. After glancing at my card he shook me by the hand, and then paused. His eyes were intently directed along the road by which I had come. I looked back, and there stood the stalwart Tongan where I had left him, gazing at the sixpence I had placed in his hand. There was a kind of stupefaction in his attitude. Presently the consul said somewhat tartly: "Ah, you've been to the Palace--the Crown Prince has brought you over!"

It was not without a thrill of nervousness that I saw my royal guide flip the sixpence into his mouth--he had no pocket--and walk back towards the royal abode.

I told the consul just how it was. In turn he told his daughter, the daughter told the native servants, and in three minutes the place was echoing with languid but appreciative laughter. Natives came to the door to look at me, and after wide-eyed smiling at me for a minute gave place to others. Though I too smiled, my thoughts were gloomy; for now it seemed impossible to go to the Palace and present myself to King George and the Heir-Apparent. But the consul, and, still more, the consul's daughter, insisted; pooh-poohing my hesitation. At this distance from the scene and after years of meditation I am convinced that their efforts to induce me to go were merely an unnatural craving for sensation.

I went--we three went. Even a bare-legged King has in his own house an advantage over the European stranger. I was heated, partly from self-repression, partly from Scotch tweed. King George was quite, quite cool, and unencumbered, save for a trifling calico jacket, a pink lava-lava, and the august fly-flapper. But what heated me most, I think, was the presence of the Crown Prince, who, on my presentation, looked at me as though he had never seen me before. He was courteous, however, directing a tappa cloth to be spread for me. The things I intended to say to King George for the good of himself and his kingdom, which I had thought out on the steamer Lubeck and rehearsed to my guide a few hours before, would not be tempted forth. There was silence; for the consul did not seem "to be on in the scene," and presently the King of Holy Tonga nodded and fell asleep. Then the Crown Prince came forward, and beckoned me to go with him. He led me to a room which was composed of mats and bamboo pillars chiefly. At first I thought there were about ten pillars to support the roof, but my impression before I left was that there were about ten thousand. For which multiplication there were good reasons.

Again a beautiful tappa cloth was spread for me, and then ten maidens entered, and, sitting in a semi-circle, began to chew a root called kava, which, when sufficiently masticated, they returned into a calabash, water being poured on the result. Meanwhile, the Prince, dreamily and ever so gently, was rolling some kind of weed between his fingers. About the time the maidens had finished, the Crown Prince's cigarette was ready. A small calabash of the Result was handed to me, and the cigarette accompanied it. The Crown Prince sat directly opposite me, lit his own cigarette, and handed the matches. I distinctly remember the first half-dozen puffs of that cigarette, the first taste of kava it had the flavour of soft soap and Dover's powder. I have smoked French-Canadian tobacco, I have puffed Mexican hair-lifters, but Heaven had preserved me till that hour from the cigarettes of a Crown Prince of Tonga. As I said, the pillars multiplied; the mats seemed rising from the floor; the maidens grew into a leering army of Amazons; but through it all the face of the Crown Prince never ceased to smile upon me gently.

There were some incidents of that festival which I may have forgotten, for the consul said afterwards that I was with his Royal Highness about an hour and a half. The last thing I remember about the visit was the voice of the successor to the throne of Holy Tonga asking me blandly in perfect English: "Will you permit me to show you the way to the consul's house?"

To my own credit I respectfully declined.

[The end]
Gilbert Parker's short story: An Amiable Revenge