Return to the Islands
My adoption, away back in 1918, into the Tarawa sept of the royal and priestly clan of Karongoa1 had given me the right to practice the magic of rain-making and rain-dismissing (incidentally also of eclipse-undoing) whenever the fancy took me. Furthermore, my clan fathers had most earnestly coached me in the mysteries of all these useful arts and I, for my part, had just as sedulously tried to get the knack of them, from the moment I became a sun king. But, despite our united goodwill and industry, my exercises in spellbinding had never managed to pull down even one small shower or avert a single unwanted raindrop up to the time in 1922 when Reggie McClure, our new chief arrived at Ocean Island with Dorothy, his beautiful wife. I was therefore not at all surprised when, out of season and against all hope, the day of their arrival turned out wet.page 27
Methven did explain, as we led them up the streaming hillside past headquarters office then up again past the central prison yard, the parade ground, the police barracks, that this was the first rain we had had for over six weeks. But the thought of that did not visibly cheer them as we bored, heads down, into the teeth of the downpour, and I had to fall back on my own thoughts for solace.
It was at least sure, I reminded myself, that they would find the residency waterproof. Methven having been, as usual, grossly overloaded with station chores, I had insisted—with a solicitude which had left him strangely ungrateful—on taking personal charge of all the repairs the rickety old building needed. He fancied my ability at that sort of job a lot less than I did myself. But it was a great comfort to me now to have seen every rust-riddled corrugated-iron sheet of the root replaced before my own eyes by a new one.
A sunburst between heavy clouds cheered us as we topped the rise. The house, two hundred yards away, looked suddenly enchanted as we approached it along the sodden cricket field's eastern boundary. Set cool in the dappled shadow of palm trees and vivid against the deep dark green of the calophyllum forest, its new scarlet roof and ivory-white paintwork shout eda swift gay welcome to us in the golden-wet light.
"Why, what a beautiful bungalow!" exclaimed blue-eyed Mrs. McClure: "I didn't expect anything like this."
"You must have taken a lot of trouble to get it ready for us," added her husband, no less kind than she.
What sheer banalities to be recording after nearly thirtyfive years, you may well think! But for Methven and me they were very far from being banal. No such spontaneous graciousness had ever leapt for us, from the saturnine lips of Reggie's predecessor, E. C. Eliot, and this free and easy approach of a chief and his lady to two subordinates was something totally new in our official experience.
We threw each other a covert, half-frightened grin, as if to say, "Marvellous! But careful, now, careful! This may be page 28nothing but eyewash." Nevertheless, I think we were both already sure enough in our hearts that these two were going to be something much nearer to all of us on Ocean Island than the usual senior stuffed shirt and proconsular camisole of our imperial epoch.
The rain came sluicing down again worse than ever as we reached the broad front steps. But the genial spell of that sunny half-minute stayed with us. The weather didn't seem to matter to anyone any longer as Reggie and his Mrs.—or Dolly, as all of us from the outset affectionately called her among ourselves—were taken round their new home.
I noticed with smugness that there wasn't a single leak anywhere in the main building, not even in that tricky corner of page 29the back verandah where the roof over the passageway to the guest-room annexe took off. My new roof had, in fact, most nobly passed the test of its first rainy day. I spoke brightly, on the strength of it, of how Mr. Eliot's orderly had been wont to rush around in wet weather scattering buckets and basins to catch the drips that trickled from the ceilings.
"Well," said Reggie with an amiable laugh, "we're certainly glad you managed to arrange things better for us than that!"
We passed into the guest-room as he was speaking. It was a fine big room with a private verandah and a bathroom of its own. Its appointments were, naturally, not as sumptuous as those which the plutocrat Phosphate Commissioners regarded as proper for occasional visitors (meaning, most probably, themselves) down at Uma, in the palace of their Ocean Island manager. But, for all that, we of the bureaucracy, with our less regal notions of the home comforts due to authority, couldn't help feeling that that extra bathroom at the residency did constitute one of the real highlights of our local civilization. I stepped into it for one last, proud look alone at its shining bronze shower fixture while the others were admiring the verandah.
The shower rose shone as bright as ever. It wasn't this, though, that held me there transfixed, but something on the wall beyond it. A trickle of water. Not a very big trickle— not heavy enough, for example, to run a straight course down the wall. And that, for me, was the meanest thing about it: a small, straight trickle in a corner might possibly have had a chance of passing unnoticed; but nobody could possibly miss this infernal, drunken, dancing dribble that zigzagged so madly across the paintwork from where the wall joined the ceiling up left of the bath's head to the concrete floor down right of its foot. And nobody seeing it could possibly fail to deduce that, somewhere over the bathroom, my egregious new roof must have a leak in it.
I like to believe that at least some of my depression in that page 30moment was due to honest shame for a job incompetently done. But I am bound to confess that the dominant thought in my mind as I stood gaping at the trickle was of the ignominy of being shown up, within an hour of our new chief's arrival, for the ass I had made of myself fiddling with work outside my province. The McClures must not enter the bathroom—they just mustn't be allowed to, I told myself firmly, as I stepped back into the bedroom shutting the door behind me.
They were still on the verandah, but Methven was in the room, looking my way. That made an excellent chance of signalling to him. I did so. Nothing could have been clearer than the way I shook my head at the bathroom, jerked my thumb at the exit doorway and mouthed at him dumbly, "Lead them out—out—out!"
But he chose to regard my desperate facial contortions as a series of ill-timed grimaces pulled at him for no reason but the idiot gaiety of my heart. Sparing nought but a single austere glance in my direction, he strode without pause to the bathroom door and flung it open. A moment later, the McClures came in from the verandah and followed him. While he stayed at the doorway, they went in.
I stood waiting for the ironic laugh that would wither me. "You silly little boy!" I heard my headmaster sneering: I wasn't on Ocean Island any longer but back at school, in the Upper Sixth classroom. For some reason or other, that day I was remembering the Lower Sixth had been there too, seated in the front row of desks while the Upper Sixth construed Juvenal from the back row; and I had just perpetrated a false quantity. It was a very silly one, I knew; true enough also, I was still undergrown at 17½; but the headmaster himself had seen fit to make a prefect of me, and the savage injustice of that 'silly little boy' of his before an audience like that had left me ever since stupidly quick to resent even the bestdeserved sarcasms of my seniors.
But no sound of laughter, no sarcasm, came from the bathroom. It wasn't conceivable that either of them could have page 31failed to see that miserable trickle. But they kept it to themselves. They knew I had seen it and chose to believe—bless them!—that I would have it put right as soon as I could. "Everything is very nice indeed," said Mrs. McClure brightly, coming back into the bedroom, and her husband, following her, added his own kind word or two of thanks. I was their grateful slave from that day on.
Methven's all-seeing eye had of course spotted the leak at once. I waited with resignation for his fatherly comments. But he withheld his fire until the next morning, after breakfast. I was about to leave for the residency when a sergeant of police, smartly saluting, appeared on the verandah and handed me a long, clumsy object of galvanized iron together with a letter. The document ran as follows:
My dear young Sir,
I have the honour to send you herewith, by the hand of Sergeant Nape, one six-foot length of galvanized iron ridge-capping.
This kind of capping, as you may possibly recollect, is used to cover the gap between the two slopes of a roof where they come together at the ridge. Serious leaks are likely to occur in wet weather wherever even only a single length has been omitted —as, for example, over the spare bathroom at the residency.
If you will be good enough to signify your assent to Sergeant Nape, I will cause the omission to be rectified while you are giving our new Chief his first instructions on how to run the Colony to your liking.
I have the honour to be,
My dear young Sir,
Your observant old friend,
(signed) S. C. Methven.
PS. Please leave the ridge-capping with Sergeant Nape in any case.
What he didn't ask was that I should let our new chief know that the leak had been my silly fault, not his.