Return to the Islands
7 — —
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.
Thin Man in the Moonlight
I was always skinny in the Pacific, but never quite so ramshackle as round about that time at Tarawa. The sorcerer's trick up north which had sent me to Betio hospital (he had pulled it off by dropping an infusion of cantharides fly into my daily drink of coconut toddy) had fined me down to under nine stone, and that seemed to leave me simply six feet of skeleton clothed in nothing but skin. The Gilbertese, with their fine, sturdy frames, had a choice of national jokes, quite unprintable here, about thin men and a number of frank words to describe their different appearances. The particular epithet for my type was kiboriana, which may be interpreted buttocks knocked away going under him. I didn't greatly fancy it at the time, but oh, how I wish it could be honestly said of me now!
It was at this turn of my career that I realized what an advantage stockily-built officers in the colonial service enjoy over thin ones. The stability, the quality of not being easily knocked over, which they command is essential to anyone who page 131 wishes to maintain, come foul, come fair, the true bulldog look of the old-style British empire builder. I just hadn't got it: practically everything tripped me up. I often managed to look far-flung as a result, also bloody, but never by any chance unbowed.
I was sitting alone, one lovely moonlit evening, on the lagoon beach of my house at Betio, when a very comely young man rushed panting from the shadows of the coconut grove behind me and flung himself on the sand at my feet:
"Save me ! Hide me !" he gasped.
Gilbertese men had not the habit of throwing themselves about like that except in the extremity of terror. There seemed so little reason for fear of any kind on such a perfect night; I jumped to a conclusion as he lay struggling for breath: he was insane, and fancied he had seen some dreadful demon somewhere among the trees. So I only said, non-committally, "Where have you come from?"
"From Bairiki," he replied. "Hide me in the calaboose. page 132Lock us both up. That woman is following us." He laid hold of my ankles: "We have sinned. Lock us up," he kept on pleading.
The village of Bairiki was four miles up-lagoon, across a tidal passage. It seemed, I said to him, a long way for a female demon to be chasing him and his friend, whoever that might be. And anyhow, being locked up in the calaboose might not give him the best protection from so active a spirit; so what about coming along to the hospital with me instead.
He sprang to his feet: "No! No! That woman! She will find us in the hospital and kill us with her akis."
A European axe didn't equate well with a Gilbertese demon. I got up. But, before I could exercise my intelligence further, a high scream rang out from the beach-head and a young woman, naked but for a brief petticoat, came pelting down towards us. "Quick! Quick! The calaboose," she panted: "She comes … that woman with her akis!" and hurled herself not, as you might have expected, into the young man's arms, but into mine.
She was small but solid; I, as I have said, tallish but spidery: the impact knocked me flying, clutching at her as I fell. It struck me as the more unfortunate because I was wearing nothing but a loin-cloth myself.
As I rolled bosom to bosom with her on that moonlit strand, my mind worked with unusual speed. This, it told me, must be the other party to the young man's 'both of us'; she, therefore, was the person with whom he had sinned, and the woman chasing them with an axe was his wife. It followed that these intimate gambols which now engaged me were not only in questionable taste for an official grass widower but also, to an unnerving degree, perilous: I had no stomach for demon wives with axes, late at night, in nothing but a loin-cloth. I wrenched myself free, sprang up and bolted for the safeties of my house and a pair of trousers.
They followed hard on my heels, imploring me at the top page 133of their lungs not to abandon them. I ordered them, with no warmth, to wait on the verandah while I changed.
I felt better buttoned-up in my slacks, but I didn't fancy being involved like this, on behalf of a guilty couple, in a game of hide-and-seek with an outraged wife. However—I thought—there was the situation: if she really was out for murder, locking up this precious pair would be as much for her protection as theirs, while, if she wasn't … well … they had asked for it. I told them brusquely to follow me and led them in sombre silence through the amethyst glimmer of the coconut grove towards where the twin havens of the male and female lock-ups lay dreaming in the moonlight.
I set the pace at a rapid but stately stride. They crowded in a twittering huddle close up behind me, so engrossed in their fears that neither gave heed to my swinging heels. I don't know whose foot it was that interfered with mine, a hundred yards or so from our gaol, but, male or female, it was all one: my left toe suddenly found itself hooked round my right ankle; my trunk and upper members took an impulsive forward plunge; for the second time that night, I hurtled to the ground. The fact that I hurtled alone on this occasion added little to my pleasure.
I lay face down, saying things into the roadway. Not even a sudden shriek of the girl's deflected my immediate attention to her. It was only when flying feet whipped past my head that I looked up, to see the pair of them racing hand in hand, deadly silent now, towards the prison.
What I felt most, as I sat up, was the need of a little more solitude. I shouldn't have hurried my next move but for the cause of their flight, who now came into my ken. There she was, a female fiend, incredibly massive and bony, charging down on me, chopper in hand, at hurricane speed. She was so close that there wasn't any real hope of getting out of her way; I should have lain down again, quickly; she might have tripped over me then and knocked herself silly. But I panicked and sprang up facing her. She crashed into me; I clung to her page 134resistless bulk; we stood on our heads together for a moment; then I found myself back again at the old game of roly-poly on the ground.
But within three seconds she had flung me off, leapt to her feet and rushed on, chopper aloft, hooting like a siren, in chase of the fugitives. I sprinted after her, my thrice-shaken mind grappling with the new evidence. This demoniac middle-aged Atalanta couldn't possibly be the young man's wife. As for the girl, no angry husband was on her tracks. Therefore, whatever sin the two had sinned, it wasn't the crime I had assumed. I reached this flawless conclusion about thirty yards from the prison gates and six feet behind the huntress's heels, just as her quarry disappeared into the guard-house. Five seconds later, she flew in after them. I caused her to be airborne myself, with deep pleasure, by cleverly crossing her legs in the last tick of time. There were noises within before she emerged in the grip of two guards.
When at last she gave up fighting for her freedom, we gathered a fact or two from her frothing flood of talk. She was the girl's mother, it seemed. The young couple were soon to be married; the law said they could be; she couldn't stop them; anyhow, it was high time they were, so she said. All that was bad enough, but, even at that, it didn't amount to a matter of life and death. It was when they started spoiling her cook-house that life and death, according to her, came into the picture. She knew what to do about that, nobody better; there wasn't a finer cook in Tarawa; look at her puddings, for example … I could make no sense of it.
"Life and death? Your cook-house?" I only managed to silence her by yelling as loud as I could.
"Yes! My cook-house," she bawled back: "didn't you hear? My cook-house. Four times they have spoiled it. Four times I have changed the place of the earth-oven. And now, tonight, they have poisoned it again."
The whole population of the police lines, male and female, was gathered around now. A groan of sympathy, evidently page 135intended for her, burst from them at her last words. "We hear, we hear," called a woman's voice. "Continue. Make everything clear, for we listen." The men holding her arms dropped them and stood aside.
Placated by this show of fellow-feeling, she began to explain herself more quietly. As every decent housewife knew, she said, love-making was one of the things that the spirits of a Gilbertese earth-oven never could abide. The shame of it soured their stomachs, and the poisonous winds thus engendered inside them were infallibly extruded into every kind of food that came their way for cooking. But these two lovers, being Christian converts, called this nothing but wicked pagan nonsense, and despite her every entreaty, went on and on making assignations in her kitchen.
"Alas, for shame!" wailed a score of horrified, decent pagan matrons, "and what happened then?"
The inevitable thing had happened, she wailed back, bursting into tears. Her husband and aged father, who lived with them, had fallen ill: they were afflicted day and night with the most painful and outrageous flatulence. And, as if that wasn't enough in itself to break any woman's heart, there was their constant ill-temper, which they visited regularly upon herself. That very morning, they had thrashed her between them—taking turns at holding down and beating—until she was nearly dead. What then, she asked us, did we think had been her feelings tonight on finding this pair at it again?
Not a mere groan, but a roar of sympathy this time answered her. That was really, for her, the climax of the evening's drama: from then on, every one of us was with her, heart and head, for the pagan purity of her kitchen. There were speeches all round. I contributed a nice piece myself, to which the young man replied with suitable guarantees of amendment. Nobody had the ill-grace to mention the chopper, which lay behind me, where someone had thrown it, quietly winking at the moon. If anyone remembered it, I certainly did not when, at the end, the girl bowed herself before her page 136mother and promised never, never again to enter the kitchen except for cooking. Deeply touched by the generosity of that high surrender and uplifted more than I can say by the pride and honour of my function as father and friend of all of them, I pronounced a short but beautiful little benediction, drew myself up with lifted hand as stately as an archbishop, stepped a pace or two to the rear, thus posed, for my leave-taking, tripped over the chopper, and threw a wild back somersault to the floor.
Unlike my three earlier performances, this one had an appreciative audience. It took a long time to restore decent order by the prisons. And even then, as I limped back alone to my house, I could hear that the three authors of my downfall (trudging homeward now, all happy together) hadn't yet forgotten it. But the moonlight was so wonderful, and peace among men always was worth at least a bruised behind, and somehow I couldn't manage to resent the laughter that came ringing through the trees, first clarion clear, then dwindling to silver bells along the road to Baikiri, and dwindling again until there was no more of it, or them, or anything but sea-whispers and moonbeams in the aching stillness of the night.
Haunted Homes and a Stinking Ghost
There were five European houses scattered through the whispering glades of the palm forest on Betio station in 1923. Two of these had been put up by myself in 1916; the other three were much older; and every one of them, according to the people of Betio village next door, was haunted. The basic trouble was not, I gathered, that they had all happened to be built on pre-haunted ground; there wasn't a foot of soil anywhere up the creeping length of Tarawa that wasn't the lurking place of one fiend or another, and you had to take these as you found them. It was how you dealt with them when you laid out your ground plan and built your house that page 137really mattered. If you didn't turn on the proper spells—and how could you if you were a white man?—it followed as a matter of course that the ghosts or the elementals got in.
One of the two bungalows that I had built had been occupied without delay by an earth-spirit called Na Kun, who showed himself in the form of a noddy. He croaked "Kun-kun-kun" at you in the dark of night, and aimed his droppings at your eye, and blinded you for life if he made a bull's-eye of it. The other house had a dog on its front verandah: not just a kamea (that is, a come-here) as the white man's dogs were called, but a kiri—one of the breed the ancestors had brought with them out of the West when, shortly after the creation of the world by Naareau the Elder, they came to settle on Tarawa. I could never make out why everyone was so frightened of this beast. He never did anything, simply was in the house. For my own purposes I came to the conclusion that he was like the mopoke in the celebrated Australian story, so deceptive that what I occasionally thought I saw on the front verandah and took to be something else actually was what I took it for, namely, a mongrel of the old kiri strain from the village.
There was a cheerful tale among the villagers that, round about 1910, an aged friend of mine, a widely loved sorcerer who dealt in what was called the magic of kindness (meaning any kind of ritual or charm not intended to hurt anybody) had posted one of his familiars, the apparition of a grey heron, on the front verandah of a decrepit bungalow near the hospital. His intent, so the story went, was to get hold of a few medical secrets for the improvement of his repertoire of curative potions, especially those which had to do with the revitalization of flagging manhood. But his constructive plan was most untimely frustrated when the resident medical officer was transferred to another house, only just built, but nevertheless already haunted by a hag with two heads. This unpleasant creature made a most frightful scene when the wizard tried to take the new premises over for his inquisitive bird. I learned all these facts from a glorious burlesque show put up for me page 138one Saturday night by the lads, young and old, of Betio village. The miming of the demon lady's fury, her inhospitable gestures, the rout of the sorcerer, and the total desolation of the heron left all of us, including the venerable gentleman himself, helpless with laughter. But, in the last analysis, behind all the mirth of that roaring crowd, there wasn't a soul present except myself who didn't accept both the familiar and the demon for cold and often terrifying fact.
The oldest house on our station, the one we called the Old Residency, was a pleasant, two-floored structure near the lagoonside haunted by a nameless white beachcomber. This ghost was held in peculiar dread by the villagers, because they regarded it as earthbound for ever, its body having been murdered and left unburied on the beach for the Betio dogs to devour. That kind of revenant was always more iowawa (malicious) than any other, everyone believed.
The unhappy man, so the story ran, had been killed on the site of the Residency with a glass bottle by a fellow beach-comber named Tom, a generation or so before the coming of the British flag in 1892, which is to say, somewhere back in the late eighteen-sixties. Nothing else was remembered of him except that he was wearing a sailor's dark shore clothes and thick black boots when he came by his death. Or, at least, that is how his ghost was said to be dressed whenever it allowed itself to be seen about the house.
The villagers talked about him so much and with such conviction that Europeans began to accept the haunt as a fact. It is hard to resist belief in such things when you are lonely and the whole air around you palpitates with horrified credulity. Good Father Guichard of the Sacred Heart Mission, bless him, came down-lagoon fifteen miles when Olivia and I arrived at Tarawa in 1916, especially to warn us against living in the house. But we did live there. We couldn't see why the poor ghost, if it existed, should want to do us any harm. So we had our beds and the baby's cot on the airy gable verandah where he was supposed to walk, clump-clump, in his great page 139thick boots; and all the time we were there we never saw or heard a thing or had the smallest feeling of his unseen presence.
But when I was transferred to the Central Gilberts in 1917 I found a house that gave me quite different sensations. That was the district officer's transit quarters on Tabiteuea, built by George Murdoch, my predecessor in the central islands. It used to stand in a rustling grove of coconut palms by the lagoon beach, a hundred yards or so north of Utiroa village and about the same distance south of the big, whitewashed island prison. It was an airily built, two-roomed shelter of local thatch and timber, a heavenly cool refuge from the ferocious glare of sea and sand beyond the grove. I found it a cheerful place, too, all through the daylight hours, with the talkative Utiroa villagers padding back and forth along the road that passed it to landward.
It changed, though, when darkness fell and the village slept. An uneasiness came upon it then. Or perhaps it was I who changed—I don't know—only I couldn't pass a night there without being haunted by a thought that something was on the edge of happening: something so imminently near, I always felt, that if nothing but one gossamer fold of the darkness could be stripped aside I should see what it was. The idea would come back and back at me as I sat reading or writing. Once or twice, it pulled me up out of sleep, wide awake on the instant, thinking, "Here it is!" But if it was, it never showed itself.
Had this been all, I should never have had the place pulled down. Not even the horrifying odour that visited me there one night would have sufficed of itself to drive me to that extreme. You don't destroy a house built by your predecessor —especially an old stager like George Murdoch—for the sole reason that it was once, for about thirty seconds in your experience, invaded by a smell you couldn't explain. It was what George himself said to me afterwards, when I told him (among other things) how my dog had behaved, that set me looking for another site.page 140
The dog was my terrier, Smith. He was lying in the draught of the roadside doorway one night, while I sat reading. I wasn't deeply absorbed, because I was worried about Anterea, an old friend of mine, who lay ill in the village—so ill I was sure he wouldn't last the night. Perhaps that made me particularly susceptible to whatever it was. Anyhow, I felt myself suddenly gripped as I sat by a more than usually disturbing sense of that imminent something. It had never had any particular direction before, but now it seemed to impend from the roadway. I was aware, also, of having to fight a definite dread of it this time instead of greeting it with a kind of incredulous expectancy. I sprang up, staring nervously out into the dark beyond the door. And then I noticed Smith. Hackles bristling, gums bared, he was backing step by step away from the door, whimpering and trembling as he backed.
"Smith!" I called. He gave me one quick piteous look, turned tail and bolted, yelping as if I had kicked him, through the seaward door. I heard him begin to howl on the beach just as that unspeakable odour came sweeping into the room, wave upon wave of the breath of all corruption, from the road.
Plain anger seized me as I stood. That was natural, I think. I had made myself a fine figure of fun for whoever was outside, leaping to my feet and goggling like a scared rabbit through the doorway, a glorious butt for this nasty trick. It hurt. I forgot Smith and dashed out into the road. But there wasn't a clue for eye, or ear, or nose in the hissing darkness under the wind-blown palms. I found nobody and nothing until my running feet brought me to the fringe of Utiroa village; and there I heard a sound that stripped me of all my anger. It was the noise of women wailing and men chanting, mixed with the rhythmic thud-thud of heavy staves on the ground. I couldn't mistake it. A Gilbertese bomaki ceremony was in full swing; some villager's departing soul was being ritually sped on its difficult road from earth to page 141paradise. I knew then that my old friend Anterea had not lasted the night, and I lost all heart for my silly chase.
There was no taint on the air of the house when I got back. I fell asleep untroubled by anything but my own sadness. But Smith stayed out on the beach, and I couldn't persuade him to remain indoors after dark for the few more days I spent on Tabiteuea.
The rest of the story is George Murdoch's. He had settled down to trading on Kuria Island after his retirement from the administrative service, so I took the next chance I could of running across to tell him of my feelings about the house, and Smith's queer behaviour, and the foetid smell someone had put across me.
"So he's been making friends with you, has he?" said George reflectively when I had finished, and, instead of answering when I asked who "he" might be, he went on, "From about the middle of Utiroa village to a bit north of the prison—that's his beat. Aye, he's a stinking old nuisance. But, mind you, there's no real harm in him."
'He,' in short, according to George, was an absurd ghost known to the villagers as Tewaiteaina, or One Leg, whose habit for several centuries it had been to walk—or, rather, hop—that particular stretch of Tabiteuea, every night of the year without exception, scaring everybody stiff who saw him go by. George spoke of him with a sort of affectionate irritation, as if he really existed. It was too ridiculous.
"But, Mr. Murdoch," I interrupted, "there's a ghost for every yard of the Gilberts if you swallow all that village stuff!"
He eyed me humorously: "But there's only one ghost who stinks, young fella-me-lad, and that's old One Leg. Not that he plays that trick often, mind you. Just sometimes, for friendship's sake. Now, if you'll stop interrupting, I'll tell you …
"I'd heard nothing about him when I had the prison and the rest house built where they are," he went on, "otherwise I might have chosen somewhere else. Or I might not. What's page 142the odds, anyway? The creature's harmless. So there I was one dark, still night, with a prison nicely full of grand, strong lads up the road and myself sitting all serene in the rest house, enjoying a page or two of the King's Regulations. I say I was all serene, you'll note. The house had stood three years, and I'd never been troubled by the Something's-Going-To- Happen notion you've made such a point of. Sheer nonsense, that, I'm telling you straight!"
"Yes, Mr. Murdoch," I said humbly.
"Well, you'll grow out of it, I suppose," he comforted me. "So there I sat, a grown man, with not one childish fancy to make a fool of me, when in from the roadway crashed that stinking thing and hit me like a wall. Solid. A fearful stench. You were right about that. Corruption and essence of corruption from the heart of all rottenness—that's what I said to myself as I fought my way through it to the door … How did I know it came from the road, you say? What does that matter—I did know; so don't interrupt with your questions.
"I'll admit the uncanny suddenness of it gave me the shudders at first. But I was angry, like you, by the time I reached the road. I thought some son-of-a-gun was taking a rise out of me. So I dashed back into the house, snatched up a hurricane lamp and started running hell for leather towards the prison. The reek was as thick as a fog that way, and I followed my nose.
"I hadn't gone far, though, before I heard a patter and a rush from ahead, and a great ox of a prison guard came charging full-tilt out of the darkness and threw himself at me, gibbering like a cockatoo. As I struggled out of his clutches, I caught something about someone called One Leg who'd gone hop-hopping past him into the prison yard. Well … there was my clue. 'Is it One Leg that raised this stink?' I shouted. 'Yes,' he screamed back. 'One Leg … the ghost!' I only stayed to call him a blanky fool and belted on.
"But I wasn't quick enough to catch up with the trouble. page 143When I got near the prison yard, something else had started. The whole crowd inside the men's lock-up had gone mad … raving mad … yelling their heads off … and the noise of them flinging themselves against the door was like thunder. I knew the padlock wouldn't last if that went on: I heard it crack like a pistol as I came up to the yard entrance; and, begum, before you could say knife, I was down under the feet of a maniac mob stampeding out into the bush.
"I picked myself up and made a bee-line for the lock-up; ran half-way down the gangway between the beds, swinging my lamp around; found not a soul there; charged out again to Anterea's house in the corner of the yard … why, what's the matter now?"
I had sat bolt upright and exclaimed, "Anterea?" When I repeated it, he said, "Yes, the head warder. Retired before your time, but he's still going strong in Utiroa. One of the few who never gave a damn for old One Leg. Would you believe it? He was sleeping like a baby when I got to him. Hadn't heard a sound and said he couldn't smell a thing, though the place was still humming fit to knock you down. But he got going quick enough when I told him the news. He and I hunted the bush for those poor idiots till the crack of dawn. They came in willingly enough at sun-up—all but Arikitaua, that's to say—and we had a fine pow-wow together round Anterea's shack, waiting for him to turn up. That's when I got all the dope about One Leg.
"They'd all seen him hopping up the gangway between the beds, so they claimed. There wasn't a light, but they'd seen him. 'Fiddle!' I said to that and Anterea backed me. So, just for the hell of it, I turned on him then, and asked him what of the smell I'd smelt and he hadn't; and immediately about half of them butted in to say they hadn't smelt it either; and, by the same token, the other half had. It was all very puzzling until somebody explained that One Leg only brought his saintly odour along for the particular friends of the deceased, and then, of course, it was as clear as mud. Which page 144deceased? I wanted to know. 'Oh, anyone who dies within the limits of his beat,' says my clever friend—'he turns it on as soon as the soul has left the body.'
"You could have knocked me down with a feather if there had been a corpse in sight. But there wasn't. So I said a few wise words and left them to think up another story. I had a mind to go and enquire in the village after our missing number, Arikitaua … an Utiroa man … I liked him a lot. But I hadn't gone fifty steps when a new hullaballoo from the lock-up stopped me in my tracks. I thought they were starting another One Leg stunt. But it was only poor Arikitaua this time. Yes … there he was—rolled off his bed on the floor up against the far end wall—where my lamp hadn't reached him … quite dead. I reckon it was just heart disease."
We sat silent a long time; then George said reflectively, "What with this and that, I'm surprised you didn't hear of a friend's death in Utiroa after the old stinker put it across you."
I told him then of Anterea.
"Well … well … think of that now," said George. " … and Anterea an unbeliever. Kind of friendly, I call it. There never was any real harm in old One Leg."
He was furious when I had a new rest house built on the other side of the island—as furious as a man might be who has led you up the garden path to his own confusion. But he never would admit he'd been pulling my leg. And then again, what was it that scared my dog so?
There was another story I got at that time from George Murdoch: for I took every opportunity of getting him to tell me about his early days in the islands. It was not a ghost story this time—for, from what George told me, there was nothing intangible about Tem Binoka. He recounted the incident with what seemed to me considerable relish, perhaps because page 145in a way, he felt it showed with what respect the Gilbertese first received the white man's law.
Tem Binoka, High Chief of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka, had a weakness for revenge. It expressed itself in his approach to the biting of eyeballs. An ordinary Gilbert Islander of those days would merely kill his man in battle, pluck out an eyeball on the spot, bite it in two, and go his way content. It was a public gesture—the right thing to do—and that was the end of it. But Binoka was different. He did not seek the publicity of battles; he had executioners enough to see that men lost their heads secretly whenever he whispered; he craved nothing but to revel ritually and alone in the ignominy of the dead. Their heads were rolled at his feet on a dais. Sometimes he was not in the mood to attend to the eyeballs at once. In that event, the heads were preserved until he was. He knew how to preserve them.
Terror and death reigned with him over Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka until 1892. But then Captain H. M. Davies, R.N., appeared in H.M.S. Royalist to declare a British Protectorate over the Gilbert Islands. The first man the captain looked for on Abemama was George McGhee Murdoch. George was trading there at the time for copra and shark-fins.
A code of native laws, which George himself had helped to frame, was set up by Captain Davies. All that matters about it here is that it was quite inelastic about homicide. It made no allowance at all for the customary right of a High Chief to destroy his subjects at discretion. Binoka was told that he could henceforward count with confidence upon being hanged for the murder of even the meanest of his underlings.
Binoka did not argue: there was a shrewd brain in that gorged mountain of fat. He asked instead, with realism, what price he would now be required to pay for his past errors. No price, he was told. The new law was not retroactive. It would begin to run the next morning, from the hour of hoisting the Flag and reading the Queen's Proclamation. His jowl began page 146to shake with silent laughter as he waddled out. George always reproached himself for disregarding that strange mirth.
A year or two later, Captain Davies was back again in Abemama. He came this tune as a hydrographer, to chart the approaches to the lagoon. He found George now officially presiding as Government Agent and Tax-Collector, and Binoka behaving himself as High Chief with almost piteous constitutionality. With George's help, a naval survey party was based on an islet by the lagoon entrance; and there Binoka provided, for the especial comfort of officers, an exquisitely thatched dwelling-house near the beach. His little speech of presentation was touching, George said. And he capped everything by asking the captain to accept as a further gift a small keg of rum which he had brought along with him.
Binoka's rum was, of course, a byword in the Pacific. The New Bedford whalers had taught him the trick of maturing it with raw meat and charcoal. It was his personal discovery that chunks of red porpoise-flesh did every bit as well as the white man's beef. So it was very natural, after all, for Captain Davies to jump at the offer.
It was one of those brass-bound, two-gallon kegs complete with tap. The tap gave some difficulty, but they managed to draw off a bottleful there and then. According to George, it was a triumphant liquor. It rolled around his gums, he said, as soft as mother's milk. I dare say it did. Binoka's gross body shook with mirth as he drank with them. He had a high falsetto giggle, like a girl's. The captain did not like it until George explained it was his native courtesy. They finished the bottle between them.
George returned to the camp a few evenings later. The navigating lieutenant had joined the captain there. Opinion about the quality of the rum still ran heavens high, but the tap had been giving more and more trouble. The thing merely dripped when they turned it on. George tried it: "Well," he said at last, "why not unship and clean it? There might be page 147a bit of porpoise meat stuck in it." They did so. But it was not meat they found. It was human hair. And that, as George put it to me, looked rather queer to everyone. So they investigated further, and found inside the keg the thing that accounted for the rum's rare bouquet. It was a pickled human head.
Binoka proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the man had been decapitated before the hoisting of the Flag—the evening before: just after Captain Davies had so kindly promised that the law would not be retroactive. That point being clear, what about the head? His habit from of old had been to preserve all these heads of enemies together in a single barrel. They were withdrawn as needed for the ceremonial biting of eyeballs. This one had somehow got itself isolated. Must he suffer for that? There was surely nothing in the new law to forbid the peaceful ritual. Would the captain therefore, please, restore the valued relic at once? Had not the gift of the rum in itself been generous enough?
But at that point he broke down. The fullness of his revenge suddenly overwhelmed him. A high ripple of giggles burst from his monstrous flesh. He staggered round the floor before them, racked and sobbing, and drunk with laughter. It was ghastly beyond words, George said. They sat mutely waiting for him to recover himself. When at last he did, he wiped his streaming eyes, spat on the floor, and lurched from the room without another word.
1 A Pattern of Islands