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Concentrated Polyandry

BY THOMAS A. JANVIER

YOUR very interesting exposition of the curious facts relating to matriarchy, Judge," said the Bishop, "not unnaturally reminds me of the cognate matter of polyandry: concerning which, drawing from my own experience, I am prepared to present to you—"

"I beg your pardon, Bishop," interrupted the Judge, sharply. "Permit me to observe that I now am in the very act of drawing from what you are pleased to term my 'very interesting exposition' of those facts what I trust are not wholly uninteresting conclusions: a matter that you doubtless would have perceived had your waking been less sudden, or had your precedent slumber been less profound. Of course, however, should you desire at this inauspicious moment—as you must permit me to term it—to air any of your polyandric experiences—"

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"My vote," broke in the Doctor, "is for the polyandric experiences. You've been giving us matriarchy straight from the shoulder for the last hour, Judge. Even the Bishop on polyandry will be good for a change. Go ahead and polyander, Bish."

"I beg your pardon for my quite unintentional interruption, Judge"—the Bishop spoke genially—"and for what I fear I must admit was its discourteous cause. I do believe that I did take forty winks. My episcopal duties recently have been severe. However, as you have arrived at your conclusions during my unfortunate period of inattention—and, in vulgar phrase, the milk is spilled—I shall act upon the Doctor's somewhat dubious encouragement and proceed."

"Pray do," said the Judge with a chill politeness. "That I have not concluded my conclusions is a detail that I trust you will entirely ignore."

"The incident that I am about to exhibit to you," continued the Bishop, "really is so exceptional a sort as to warrant me to in accepting what I fear is the Judge's rather reluctant assent to my presentment of it. I must premise that it came within the scope of my personal knowledge during the year immediately sequent to my taking orders, when I was engaged in missionary work in the South Sea."

"Were your parishioners cannibals, and did try to eat you, Bish?" asked the Doctor.

"They were cannibals, and they did try to eat me," replied the Bishop. "Indeed, I may explain that my ministrations among them ceased abruptly—a man-of-war providentially touching at our island at the very moment when the situation had become crisic—because of their regrettable disposition to assimilate my person rather than my teachings. Their determination to make use of me as an edible, it is but fair to add, was purely instinctive and quite untouched by malevolence. Until that instinct asserted itself—a full year after my ministrations among them began—our relations were most cordial; and I am quite sure, so genuine was their kindly feeling for me, that even had I been absorbed into their midst as a nutritive their affection for me would have continued unchanged.

"It was during that happy year—unmarred, so far as I was concerned, by any trace of their dietary eccentricities—that occurred the exceptional, probably the unique, case of polyandry to which I now refer. Its periphery, if I may so express myself, was made up of the eight young men who constituted the crew of the canoe in which I traveled from village to village along the coast of our island in the discharge of my parochial duties. They were exceptionally fine young fellows, quite the pick of the islanders, and wholly devoted to my service; and also, on their own account, always most eager to take me on my journeyings: because—as one of them once naïvely told me—'going around visiting was such fun'! Indeed, their liking for flitting about was so marked that they frequently—at times when I could dispense with their services—borrowed my canoe for a day or two and went off on little jaunts of their own.

"The center of the polyandric storm—for such, I regret to say, it became—was a young woman named Ooloola: by far the most beautiful of all the females on our island, and one of the most beautiful creatures that ever I have seen. Her disposition was in keeping with her person. Cheerful, kind-hearted, helpfully obliging, she won the friendship even of her own sex—and, as a matter of course, the love of all the male islanders of a marriageable age. Practically, however, my canoe-men—being, as I have mentioned, conspicuously superior to their fellows—were so far ahead in the running that all of the many other candidates for her hand withdrew.

"Fearing that ill will might develop among my men—Ooloola having frankly declared that she willingly would marry any one of them, but could not bring herself to a choice—I advised, in what I now perceive to have been a fatal moment, that they should settle the matter by drawing lots for her among themselves. To my relief they informed me, after some days of deliberation, that they had decided to accept my advice in substance—merely modifying it a little, they explained, in a way that would exclude jealousies when a decision had been reached—and that they would act upon it without delay. Yet no result seemed to flow from the lot-drawing in which I repeatedly saw them engaging themselves, and I could only infer that the matter again was at a stand."

"And then you sailed in and married the bunch of 'em polyandrically to Ooloola, eh Bish?" said the Doctor, questioningly. And added: "Well, I'll be blowed!"

"In a way, Doctor," replied the Bishop, speaking with a cautious accuracy, "I did marry her to 'the bunch of 'em,' as you phrase it; but the abnormal feature of the case was that the resulting polyandry, far from being of the ordinarily diffuse sort, was concentrated to a very high degree."

"You will pardon me, I trust, Bishop," said the Colonel, "for pointing out that the concentration of polyandry is impossible. The several male entities involved in a woman's gregarious marriage to a congery of husbands, being but casually grouped around a common center, necessarily retain intact their several incompressible individualities: and therefore are not susceptible to that process of equable diminution that the term 'concentrated' implies."

"You will pardon me, I trust, Colonel," said the Bishop tartly, "for pointing out that I used the term 'concentrated' advisedly: for the reason, with all due deference to your views on the subject, that it expresses precisely my meaning. I may add that the interpolation of irrelevant comment upon my narrative appreciably retards its advance. Of course, however, I shall be happy to listen to any further verbal criticism of which you may wish to free your mind."

"Never mind the Colonel's fussing, and crack ahead, Bish," interjected the Doctor. "How did you work it to get your polyandry concentrated?"

"I did not work it," replied the Bishop. "It was worked independently of, I even may say most deplorably against, my wishes; and in a manner so well concealed from my knowledge that a considerable interval of time elapsed before—to use one of your own pregnant colloquialisms—I 'caught on.' I best can exhibit the insidious veiling of the facts in the case by presenting them to you in the order, and in the manner, in which they were brought to my own notice.

"What I came to recognize later as the beginning of the series of tragic mischances, of which for so long I remained an unperceiving observer, was the tearful announcement by my canoe-men that one of their number—Moomoota, a very worthy young-man—had fallen overboard in the course of one of their pleasure cruises and had been eaten by a shark. They were absent for two full days on their little frolic that ended so disastrously—having delayed their return, they explained to me, in order to celebrate a funeral feast in Moomoota's honor; and as they all had an oily, well-stuffed look, naturally resultant from such melancholy festivity, I was satisfied that the poor fellows really had done their best in the way of ritual tribute to their deceased friend. Rather to my surprise, my suggestions as to a successor to Moomoota were not well received. They said decidedly that their love for their late brother would not suffer them to have a stranger in his place; and, as seven men easily could work my canoe, I yielded to them—and was not a little touched by their display of a sentiment so creditable to the goodness of their hearts.

"Only a few days later I was pained by another fatality among my men: Nooka, my second paddler, being found at the base of a cliff—over which he evidently had fallen—with his head mashed in. The remainder of my crew, weeping bitterly, acquainted me with this dismal fact—and begged that they might have the use of my canoe for a couple of days in order, as they sadly explained, to 'make feast' for him at the same spot where they had feasted for poor Moomoota, and to place him in the same sepulcher. To so reasonable a request I could not but accede—and their sleeky, full-fed appearance, when they returned from their gloomy banquet, assured me that their ritual duties had been conscientiously discharged. Again, on grounds of most creditable sentiment, they urged me to refrain from filling their loved brother's place; and again I was touched by their good-heartedness and suffered them to have their way.

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"Not needlessly to encumber my narrative with painful details, I will state briefly that similar fatalities went on among the members of my crew with a rapidity that filled me—and that equally filled their surviving associates—with a bitter cumulative grief. One poor fellow, although reckoned to be an unusually expert climber, was found at the foot of a cocoa-palm with his neck broken; another was crushed by my canoe while the sadly reduced crew—that steadfastly resisted my desire to fill the vacancies—was beaching it; two more, in quick succession, were taken off by sharks; and the last but one perished—as the sole survivor, Nootooka, told me—by being swept from his surf-board and dashed against the coral rocks by an extraordinarily violent wave.

"For each of them, in turn, a funeral feast was celebrated by the pitifully decreasing remnant of their fellows; and the time devoted to these feasts constantly lengthened because, as the kindly creatures told me, it was necessary to consume on each occasion the same amount of honorific food. When Nootooka went off in my canoe with the last of his fellows—all were carried to the same spot for mortuary disposition—he was gone for nearly a week; and he returned so stuffed by his honorific overeating that for some days he was quite ill.

"When Nootooka was himself again, he told me sadly that at last a new crew, to take the place of the dear ones departed, must indeed be recruited for my service; and to this he added, more cheerfully, that Ooloola—her selective hesitancy having been automatically resolved by the eliminative contraction of her possibilities of choice—had consented to be his wife. His marriage to this worthy young woman, he said, appreciably would assuage his grief for his dear brothers who were gone; and he begged me, therefore, to solemnize the ceremony with the least possible delay. To his request I could not but accede with pleasure. The wedding came off immediately—and was attended by an outburst of festive rejoicing on the part of my simple-hearted parishioners that completely effaced their sorrow over the precedent series of tragedies that had made it possible."

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"I am at loss to perceive, Bishop," observed the Colonel, as the Bishop paused after delivering this seemingly conclusive statement, "in what manner your curious but not especially interesting story of savage life relates to polyandry of any sort; still less how it relates to a form of concentrated polyandry—a phrase to which, on etymologic grounds, I already have taken exception—that you gave us to understand it was to illustrate."

"That's a fact, Bish," added the Doctor. "Nobody's polyandered worth a cent. It looks as if you'd sort of side-tracked."

"Possibly," said the Judge, with a chill incisiveness, "I now may be permitted to present my summarized conclusions—that I was in the act of setting before you when the Bishop's irrelevant and inconsequent narrative was thrust upon us—in regard to matriarchy. As I was saying—"

"Pardon me, Judge," interrupted the Bishop with warmth. "What you are pleased to term my 'inconsistent and irrelevant narrative' is not yet completed. A few words more will suffice—"

"With submission, Bishop," said the Colonel, "I cannot perceive how any number of words will suffice to uphold your thesis—embodied in your reply to a question of the Doctor's—that you married the young polyandrically to the eight members of your boat's crew: since, by your own showing, seven of them succumbed to a variety of fatal accidents before her marriage with the sole survivor took place. Such being the case, I venture to urge that you yield the floor to the Judge: whose conclusions in regard to matriarchy, while certain to be both dull and tedious, at least may be expected to approximate to that logical sequence which your own dissertation upon applied polyandry somewhat conspicuously lacks."

"My cloth, gentlemen," said the Bishop, rising from his seat and speaking in a tone of tense restraint, "forbids any expression of my natural, I may say my justifiable, resentment of your collective extreme discourtesy." Thus speaking, the Bishop moved to, and opened, the door.

"Oh, I say, Bish," said the Doctor, "don't go off mad. At least, before you hook out, clear things up a little. How did they concentratedly polyander, anyway?"

"I have stated," replied the Bishop, pausing on the threshold. "that 'in a way' I married Ooloola to my eight canoe-men polyandrically; that the polyandry was of a concentrated sort; that Ooloola actually wedded the last of them left alive. I also have stated that my men accepted my suggestion in regard to lot drawing, with a modification of their own that they declared would inhibit eventual jealousies. I further have stated that funeral feasts, increasingly prolonged as the number of the survivors diminished, attended each of the fatalities by which that diminution was produced. Finally, I have stated that my parishioners—although I was not cognizant of their alimentary idiosyncrasies until I myself barely escaped deglutition as a comestible—were cannibals. From these several statements, I venture to assert, minds endowed with even a rudimentary intelligence would deduce—by a ratiocinative process of the simplest—the one obvious and only possible conclusion."

"Great snakes!" exclaimed the Doctor. "You don't mean to say, Bish—"

"Gentlemen," said the Bishop, bowing coldly as he slowly closed the door behind him, "I have nothing more to add."

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.