Return to the Islands
I had been only eight months at work on the lands commission when, in 1923, shortages of staff forced Reggie McClure to order me back to district duties. Though I had waited years to get the commission started, this interruption wasn't on the whole unwelcome: a sorcerer's revengeful trick up north1 had recently done queer things to my insides and these had need of all the doctoring they could get at Tarawa central hospital. I should have felt more troubled had it been revealed then that I was never again to sit in my beloved lands court. For one reason and another the commission was not to be re-opened until years after the Gilberts had seen the last of me. But that is a tale for someone else's telling.
Almost as soon as I was out of the doctor's hands at Tarawa, the big ship arrived. She was a beautiful new non-British super-tramp of 11,000 tons come to pick up copra from Burns, Philp & Company's big island depot at Betio, and her captain, who spoke fluent American-English with a strong accent of his own, was one of the most lavish entertainers I have ever met. Three days on end, refusing every invitation to partake of our jointless, greenless, fruitless hospitality ashore, he regaled the page 127senior medical officer and me at lunch with lordly thick beefsteaks, ineffable salads and lashings of good liquor in his sumptuous quarters on board. This was, I think, the first time since creation's dawn that the air of Tarawa had swooned to the deep, the holy, fragrance of filet mignon grilled à point or thrilled to the crisp lilt of lettuces munched dewy-fresh from the coolroom. It was certainly the first and last time I ever tasted such bliss within two thousand miles of Tarawa.
We soon learned that this unparalleled abundance came to us out of the shipowner's pocket, not the captain's. His chief pleasure in heaping all these good things upon us was, in fact, to demonstrate what a superior good fellow his employer was.
"You Pritish haff no shipowners so chenerous as ours," he kept saying as he practically pushed second goes of everything down our throats—"You Pritish yoost don't know how to run ships like vee do." And his huge frame rocked with the roaring fun of it when we, all too painfully aware of the faults of our local shipping concerns, told him he could have British shipowners en bloc for the very least of his sublime messes of pottage. I am sure it was our shameful lack of national pride in this direction that led him astray; or so I felt guiltily on the fourth morning of his stay, when he came ashore at 7 o'clock and, sitting opposite to me across the breakfast-table, put up his proposition.
His generous employers, he said, allowed him to spend up to £40 for pilotage services on entering small ports like Tarawa and another £40 on leaving. What he had come to get from me so privately was my signature and an official stamp on a typewritten document, which, as he spoke, he laid beside my porridge bowl, flanked by a wad of Treasury notes. The document assured his employers that he had paid a mythical Tarawa Port Authority the sum of £80 for inward and outward pilotage services rendered. The wad, containing forty £i notes, was my proposed half share of the takings, he calculating to keep the other half for himself.page 128
Beyond doubt, I should have felt suitably outraged by this brazen proposal had Tarawa been a big shipping centre, crammed with wicked sailormen of all nations, where pure minded officials had to keep their eyes skinned for doublecrossers round every corner. But this was probably the first white grafter who had ever chanced that bootless way, and being a target for bribery and corruption was an exciting new adventure for me. So I asked him for a start if he expected his £40 to buy anything more than my bare signature.
Well, yes, he admitted, there was just one tiny thing more, and he went on to recall that, on the day of his arrival, a police crew had been out in the district officer's boat marking the spot where his big ship might best lie anchored. Would I please be sure to send the same boat ahead of him before he left that afternoon, this time to mark the deep water passage out of the lagoon. Like that, there would be plenty of visual evidence of pilotage both ways, which he would record in his log, and plenty of his crew could corroborate the entry if ever questions were asked.
But suppose the boat led him wrong and he piled up on the reef? What happened then, was the natural question to ask here.
The boat could never lead him wrong, he replied: he was his own navigator and needed no boats to guide him.
"All right, captain … but suppose you yourself make a mistake and then turn round and blame the boat," I suggested— "I'm the one in the soup if you go showing round this document signed by me."
He leaned forward, red in the face: "I am a naffigator, I say, and I am a man of honour," he shouted.
"Of course, of course … but this is a dangerous game … for me." I pushed the pile of notes into the middle of the table.
He leaned back again. "How much more do you want?" he asked sulkily.
"How much more do you offer?"page 129
He hauled a wad from his pocket, silently peeled five one-pound notes from it and added them to mine.
"I want more than that."
Heavily breathing but still wordless, he added another five.
I was somehow certain in that moment that further judicious pressure could wring quite a lot more out of him. I have seldom had a bigger kick out of anything in my life, I must admit. But then my eyes suddenly saw him. Slumped back sweating in a cane chair much too small for his mighty frame, he appeared so helpless, his heavy face, moulded by Nature to look so tough, fallen into puckers of schoolboy mortification. A quick fit of laughter ran away with me and the game was lost. I gathered the fifty notes, together with his egregious document, walked round the table and stuffed them back in his hands.
There was a silence before he spoke. "You mean notting doing?" he asked then, deeply shaken.
"Nothing doing," I repeated. If I had but added, "And now will you kindly get to hell out of my house," the incident would have closed there neatly and with edification for all. But his gloomy looks set me laughing again and, as I returned to my seat, I couldn't resist the temptation to crack a time-worn jest of the islands: "Cheer up, captain! You'll know better next time. No self-respecting man's conscience is worth less than a thousand pounds in these parts."
It made a new man of him. In an instant he was all smiles again. He sprawled his great elbows across the table, his little red eyes leering roguishly into mine. "Ha, ha, ha! Forgiff me, forgiff me!" he chuckled—"Me and my small-time money! I should haff known. Alvays in dese small places it is de same ting. Alvays here is de pig-time money to be found. Ach, you Pritish officials ! Alvays for you de pig-time money in de small places!" and guffawing again in generous admiration of our cunning, he invited me heartily to share one last lunch alone with him before he sailed.
I accepted at once, if only because one of his owners' page 130steaks seemed at the time nothing but a just forfeit for his deplorable cynicism. And I did make a loyal effort, as we gormandized together some hours later, to convert him to a truer, nobler view of my cloth. But all the good that did was to stimulate him to disgraceful stories of all the skulduggeries he had got away with by suborning government officials—and especially Pritish ones like me—up and down the ports of the Far East from 'Yava to Yáppan.' And when I said, self-righteously, "Well, you haven't got away with anything here, anyhow !" he dug me in the ribs: "Ach, you— you great tousand-pound man! Not for notting you stay in dis small place. I vonder … I vonder vy you stay here?"
But I'll warrant he never once wondered as hard as I did whenever I thought of my family in England.