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A Pattern of Islands

Pacific Tramp

Pacific Tramp

We reached Australia in a liner designed for the delight of passengers; we wallowed out of Sydney harbour, towards the end of April, in a craft of more romantic dedication. She was Burns, Philp and Company's steamship Moresby, a typical Pacific tramp of those days -1,300 tons register, thirty-three years old, but still A1 at Lloyd's and still game to plug her stinking way at the rate of six knots an hour through any weather to any palm-green shore where pearl-shell or bêche-de-mer, shark-fins or copra were to be picked up. By the time we met her, her battered hull, surviving god-knows-how-many hurricanes at sea page 9and casualties by reef or shoal, had puffed with unconquerable patience across three-quarters of a million miles of empty ocean (by the captain's reckoning) and pushed its grimy nose through every remotest archipelago of the Pacific. The captain, a minute Cockney as way-worn but steadfast as his ship, would talk to us for hours about her achievements, his brown eyes tender with love; but the chief of all her virtues for him was her iron hull.

'Look at those lovely plates!' he would exclaim, pointing to the incredibly buckled decks. 'All bent to hell, but not a leak in 'em anywhere! Because why? They're beautiful soft iron, not this here cheap steel. She can knock her way into lagoons through horses' heads and coral mushrooms … crack-crack, like that, port and starboard, the dear old what-not, just taking a few more dents in her old bottom but never springing a blanky leak anywhere.' A sweet old lady she was, he always finished up, a sweet old lady. She must have been, in her fashion, for the memory of her still tugs somehow at my heart; but she had not been designed for the comfort of land-lubbers like us, nor had her business occasions sweetened the smell of her for our kind of noses. She reeked of dead shark, putrid oyster and rancid copra from stem to stern of her aged body, and the ruinous wooden hutch on the forward well-deck where we tried to sleep was undoubtedly the chief concentrating-point of all her odours. Then, too, there were the cockroaches.

Those three-and-a-half-inch monsters, fattened on the oily refuse that clotted every crevice of the holds, swarmed up at night into our bunks, looking for a change of diet. Pacific cockroaches eat feet. They would willingly devour any other exposed part of the human body, for that matter, if one let them; but the tickle of a dozen or so on a hand or face usually wakes a sleeper before they can get down to a meal. A foot, though, is a different proposition; the thick skin on the sole is insensitive, and the victim feels nothing until they have gnawed that down to the quick. When he does wake, the ball and heel have been stripped pink, and he hobbles for the next week or so, to the exquisite enjoyment of all true sailormen and shell-backs. I know, because it happened to me in the Moresby. It was then that I heard for the first time that side-splitting joke, so gloat-page 10ingly reiterated by shell-backs for the comfort of green-horns: 'Take it easy, son: it's only the first ten years in the islands that's hell!'

We did learn later to accept cockroaches as domestic pets (or almost) for, in the Gilbert Islands, whenever foul weather threatened, whole rustling clouds of them would come flying into the house for refuge. Once lodged, they stayed for weeks; so we decided at last to count them in as an essential ingredient of Pacific romance – it was either that, or die of daily horror – and our only incurable pedantry about them in the long run was to keep them, if or when possible, out of the soup. It was fortunate, nevertheless, that we did not reach this stage of civilization in the Moresby, because, but for our first maniac terror of the brutes, we might never have slept on deck. The captain had strong ideas about the propriety of such a thing for a young woman. Nothing but our most haggard entreaties persuaded him to let us, at last, drag our mattresses up to the boat-deck amidships. Once we were there, however, he gave us a tarpaulin sheet for extra cover against rain squalls. We needed it a lot at first, but the weather cleared as we slid past the Santa Cruz group; and then we found out what it was to lie at night overleaned by nothing but a firmament of flaming stars — for the tropic stars did flame for us, just as the travel books had promised. The nights were amethyst clear and cool. Eddies of warm air, loaded with earth scents and jungle dreams from islands beyond sight enmeshed us and were gone again. The swing of the old ship was so quiet, she seemed to be poised moveless while the stars themselves were rocking to the croon of the bow-wave, back and forth above her mastheads, as we lay tranced with watching.

There were Gilbertese deck-hands in the crew, copper-skinned boys, thick muscled and short in the leg but as active as cats in the rigging. They were shy with strangers, stern featured and remote-looking when they worked alone. We thought them dour folk until we saw them get together. That was somewhere on the edge of the tropics, when the trousers and jerseys that had veiled the glorious moulding of their bodies had been discarded for the belted waist-cloths, trimmed to the knee, of ordinary page 11island wear. They had been called to the forecastle-head to heave an anchor inboard for cleaning. We saw them cluster in silence, a group of bronze statues by the catheads, while the boatswain's mate, an Ocean Islander, interpreted the first mate's talk. There was hardly a move and never the hint of a smile among them until the officer walked away. We wondered why he had left them standing so unresponsive there; but 'you watch 'em' said the captain. Magically, as he spoke, the tough masks relaxed and were turned with grins towards one man of their number — not their official leader, the boatswain's mate, but a massive, towering fellow, who still stood utterly smileless. The captain said he was their licensed wag: it was up to him and nobody else on board to start things humming. He had his joke all ready cooked up behind those brooding eyes. It was a crack, as we heard later, of the most joyous ribaldry about the ancestry of anchors; he delivered himself of it in a high feminine shriek, tottering towards the side in perfect simulation of senility. The air suddenly rang with answering laughter; the crew leapt alive; the anchor came aboard in no time to the accompaniment of hoots and horse-play. When the job was finished, they stood around holding hands and chattering for a while, to look at what they had done, like satisfied children or artists well pleased with their handiwork. Then, one by one, they drifted off to their separate tasks, each wrapped again in the cloak of his austere silence.

One evening, we heard them singing on the forecastle-head. We could make out, from where we listened, a circle of sitting shapes, their torsos stippled in black-against the night sky. Their heads and shoulders were bowed, their voices muted; the queer inflections of their chant were cadenced, even for our alien ears, with grief beyond bearing. We knew it could not be one of the ancient island sagas of war or wonder-voyage that we had read about. We were to hear many of those later, triumphantly intoned, in the packed meeting-houses of the Gilberts; but this was a new song and a sad song made by one of the crew for love of his cruel lady. I got the words of it from Teburea, the boatswain's mate, before we left the ship. He wrote them down for me and I still have the paper; here is the ungarnished translation of them:

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I am sore-hearted for you,
Do not make me kill myself.
How great is my frustration
Because you give me no reward!
I am sad, I am sad,
But I can hide my sadness from you,
If you will only say that one day
Perhaps I shall have my reward.

Teburea told me that the suffering poet could not, for shame of seeming boastful, himself join in the singing. His part was to teach his song to friends who loved him, and sit weeping in their circle while they sang it for him. They too wept as they sang, Teburea said, because they knew their tears would make their friend a little happy, and because the words were very beautiful, and because all of them were sick for their own sweethearts, over there across the sea to eastward. Or perhaps, if they were not sick for sweethearts, they wanted to see their fathers and mothers again. 'Me sick, too, for my old man,' Teburea finished simply (I know now that he meant his adoptive grandfather), 'he love me too much; me love him too much, too,' and walked away.

It began to dawn on me then that, beyond the teeming romance that lies in the differences between men — the diversity of their homes, the multitude of their ways of life, the dividing strangeness of their faces and tongues, the thousand-fold mysteries of their origins — there lies the still profounder romance of their kinship with each other, a kinship that springs from the immutable constancy of man's need to share laughter and friendship, poetry and love in common. A man may travel a long road, and suffer much loneliness, before he makes that discovery. Some, groping along dark byways, never have the good fortune to stumble upon it. But I was luckier than most. The islands I had chosen blindly, for the only reason that they were romantically remote, were peopled by a race who, despite the old savagery of their wars and the grimness born of their endless battle with the sea, were princes in laughter and friendship, poetry and love. Something in the simple way Teburea had spoken of that love song and the singing of it gave me a sudden page 13inkling of things to come. I felt in my bones I was going to a place that, for all its remoteness, would prove to be no strange land for me.