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Return to the Islands

Spirited Encounter

Spirited Encounter

When the average Gilbertese villager of thirty years ago came to while away a few months in prison, his main idea as a rule was to settle down to a lovely, long, well-fed rest from the grim task of food-getting for his family. No such insults to his intelligence as chevaux de frise or barbed wire were needed to keep him put. For that reason, the calaboose on Ocean Island was ill-fitted to contain inmates of a less home-staying habit. Our Chinese guests, for example, could and did escape from confinement practically whenever they liked and their midnight doings, together with those of their friends in the Chinese location, were a constant pain in the neck for the local administration. But although this did, as you will see, have a strong connection with my behaviour coming home from the manager's party, it wasn't the thing that actually drove me to drink while acting for Reggie McClure.

You might say that a microbe imported by Chinese labourers page 168was mainly to blame. I never saw a new draft of recruits from Hong Kong that failed to arrive in the pink of condition or omitted to bring with it an influenza germ of peculiar malignance. When the newcomers landed, the order of events never varied. Almost at once, the entire population of Gilbertese labourers would disappear into hospital. A week or so later, the British Phosphate Commissioners' staff of fifty odd Europeans would succumb en masse with their wives and families. The eleven hundred Ocean Islanders in their beautiful villages would follow. Last of all, when everyone else had forgotten what it felt like to be ill, came the turn of the wretched little government staff. And infallibly, at this point, the manager of the phosphate concern would decide to celebrate his complete return to health with a grand dinner-party.

So things fell out about three weeks before Reggie was due to return from leave. The manager's invitation came and was accepted at a moment when Olivia and I were the only representatives of His Majesty's local dignity still able to get up and stand on it. But by the date of the party Olivia was down with the usual fever and bone-ache (the thing was very like dengue); nobody else on the station was yet back on his feet; and I was obviously sickening for a nice little go of my own.

My temperature was over 100, and I shouldn't have thought twice about calling the fixture off under ordinary conditions. But I felt that Reggie, himself a model of official courtesy, might well be annoyed if he heard that not even the man acting for him had made an effort to attend.

Olivia told me from her bed of pain not to be an idiot, but I was set on going; so she said at last, oh well, if I had to be silly and official about it I had better fortify myself with a drop of the right stuff for a start and go on keeping up my strength with whatever I could lay my hands on as the evening proceeded.

A couple of whiskies before I left more than justified the page 169first part of her advice. Their effect on me was all the more bracing, I suppose, because at that age I hardly ever touched spirits. They sent me off humming gay little tunes along the lonely way to the manager's house. Another helpful thing they did (for that evening at least) was to break down the queasy dislike I had for dry Martinis and that grossly overrated beverage, champagne. Two or three of the former before dinner put me into fine shape for a methodical attack on the latter as soon as the excellent sherry they gave us had been faithfully dealt with. Some superb brandy when the ladies retired and I forget how many Scotches for the road at about 10.30 set me on my homeward path, if not in fact entirely cured of my temperature, at least too free from care to give a hoot whether I had one or not.

I remember still the chaste clarity, the shining happiness of my impressions as I floated home through the moonlight. I remember how the black and silver trees, and the great amethyst cloud galleons, and the darling honeysuckle stars between them, and the pale green sticks and stones that rolled beneath my feet seemed to murmur and ripple, and twinkle, and tinkle all together in an ecstasy of being that sang in perfect unison with my own as I climbed the craggy hillside. I remember shouting, "Here I come, laddie!" and dancing like a faun out on a gangplank over a forty-foot ravine that scared me silly when sober. I remember stopping on the other side to stand and gaze by a twisted rock, laughing for delight at the queer shadow it threw, and trying to strike the same attitude, and failing, and failing again, and laughing anew each time for the exquisite fun of being myself and not my flickering, futile shadow. The thing I really don't remember rightly is my motive for popping behind that rock when I saw the little Chinese figure creeping round a bend of the bush track ahead.

I knew, of course, that he could be up to no good. Though compound fences were forbidden, the Chinese and Gilbertese labourers were supposed to stay inside their respective bounds page 170after dark. But I must admit I wasn't troubling much about that kind of thing just then. I was simply brimming over with human affection, and I thought he was, too. Why, after all, probe deeper than that for motive?

"You funny ol', naughty ol', poor ol' boy!" I crooned towards him as he came sneaking nearer. "Caught in the act! But nemmind. Iss on'y good ol' Grumble!" And to convince him beyond all reasonable doubt of my pleasure at this meeting, I leapt out from behind the rock with whoopee after glad whoopee of friendship, and, arms flung high, rushed forward to embrace him there in that moonlit pathway.

I shall never forget the ungraciousness of his response. He stopped in his tracks; his hands flew up, clawing at his cheeks; his mouth fell open; he screamed one chattering, high-pitched scream when I was almost on top of him, then turned and hurled himself back along the way he had come.

The disappointment of it knocked all the sparkle out of me. I had no heart for chasing anyone who did not want my friendship. I sent a single wistful howl of farewell speeding in his wake and trudged the rest of the way home in melancholy silence.

The double doors of our bedroom were wide open to the verandah when I reached the residency, and I should easily have got to bed without disturbing my poor sick wife but for an architect's silly practical joke.

A batten of wood for the outside doors to close against in bad weather—a rain-stopper, I believe it was called—was nailed to the floor across the entrance. It had never been known to delay by an instant the flooding of the room in westerly squalls, but there it lurked, waiting for feet like mine to find it. Olivia woke with a shriek as all my bones hit the floor together.

I comforted her bravely from the dark where I grovelled "Issallri, my dear, issallri', iss on'y ol' Grumbo come 'ome."

Reassured, she sank into sleep again. But to me, as I lay gathering my forces, there came—I can't think why—a page 171sudden, overwhelming need to brush my hair. I rolled over on my back, groped upwards with one hand from where I lay, found the brush, jerked the runner off the dressing-table and brought its crockery crashing in ruin about my head.

Olivia woke with another shriek. There was a distinct touch of temper in it this time. "Are you by any chance tight?" she asked me, rather cruelly I thought.

Unwilling to return a sharp answer, I lay thinking it over soberly. "It mushta bin that terrible Chinese cocktail," I remember muttering just before sleep fell on me like an extinguisher, there on the cool, hard boards.

I woke up the next morning without a trace of fever and free of the smallest symptom of a hangover. The moral of this is that you can get a lot of good out of the creature if your limits are as moderate as mine were; and that is the proper climax of the story, but not the end of the record.

As soon as I was dressed, I went down to the police barracks for a talk with the Chinese interpreter and Sergeant-Major Taitusi. These illicit excursions of coolies from their locations must be stopped, I told them severely, after giving a rather modified rendering of my adventure.

There was a faint smile on the interpreter's face that I didn't much like. "Sir," he asked in his punctilious style, "is it possible that the evil fellow who escaped from your detaining hand last night was identical with the no-good convicted felon found missing from his prison cell at 10.44 and sought by us in vain until 10.58?"

"How should I know, man?" I replied irritably. "And while we're on it, why the deuce did you give up looking for him at 10.58?"

"Because at that time precisely, sir, he returned to us and desired with fearful pleadings to be locked up again."

I strongly hoped he would let it go at that, but he went on: "He deposed to the effect that an insane white man with the face of a devil pursued him through the bush with obvious intent to maim or murder."

page 172

"Why, the dirty liar!" I began indignantly, but his smooth voice continued as if I hadn't spoken, "…after due consideration, Sergeant-Major Taitusi and I are of the opinion that it was not a white man whom he saw, but one of the dangerous rock demons who are known to infest this island. There is a certain similarity…"

Did his wicked old eyelid flicker at me or not? I have never been sure. But I agreed with him heartily and suggested that, as the poor fellow had had such a fright we might with decency forbear to pursue the little matter of his temporary escape any further.

"That would indeed seem very just and proper," he answered urbanely. So the matter ended there.