A Pattern of Islands
The Government station at Abemama, which George had made, was an enclosure of about ten acres of coconut-grove above the lagoon beach. It was placed where the twenty-mile capital C of the land was broken, almost at its middle point, by a tidal passage between lagoon and ocean. Down on the beach-head were the boat house and a flagstaff. Due west from the flagstaff, six miles across the blue flame of the lagoon, lay the surfsmothered barrier of the ocean reef, stretched from tip to tip of the C, with two or three palm-tufted islets riding on it near the passage where the ships came in.
Inland among the palms stood the District Officer's quarters, a three-roomed thatched house built wholly of native materials, its servants' quarters grouped nearby. A generous government had furnished it free, gratis (and, incidentally, for almost nothing) with floor-mats made in the female gaol; string beds – meaning beds sprung with string, not springs – manufactured by the station carpenter; six Austrian bentwood chairs; a squatter's chair; a kerosene lamp that the faintest breeze blew out; a kitchen table for the kitchen; another kitchen table for the dining-room; a china basin with ewer (not a single crack in either); and two japanned chamberpots. There was, however, also a stationery cupboard in the office, which we eventually appropriated for a wardrobe, and that, with one or two additions of our own, spelt luxury enough for us. It is astonishing how a few packing-cases with cretonne frills, and books, and photographs in silver frames, and a cheap vase or two here and there, can make a home, and I think District Officers' wives more than most others have a genius for charming miracles out of these simplicities. They have to.
Scattered around us through the trees were a small box of an office, a beautiful maneaba, and two handsome gaols, one for page 192men, one for women. The last was to prove useful to Olivia for purposes far from penal, as I shall reveal more fully later. The dwellings of the Native Magistrate, his Chief Kaubure, Chief of Police, and Island Scribe were ranged with those of three or four station police down against the tidal passage. A small medical visiting station and dispensary under the charge of a Native Dresser stood over by the wind-blown ocean beach a furlong to eastward. There was a Roman Catholic mission station a mile or so along the lagoonside road. The resident missionary, Father Trautwein, and two teaching Sisters were the only other Europeans on the island, except the captain and engineer of the ketch Choiseul, who were at sea most of the time. It was a lonely life for any white woman prone to sitting down and twiddling thumbs, but Olivia was not a twiddler. I dare not claim that her methods were always strictly legal, but she certainly was addicted to go-getting.
She began, irreproachably enough, by combing the villages for sick children and establishing a kind of nursing-home-cum-mother's-education-centre in one of the houses of the servants' quarters. There was no doctor on the island for fifty-one and a half weeks of the year, but the Dresser at the visiting station supplied simple medicines from his stock and, with the writings of Dr Truby King as her main stand-by, she had extraordinary success with her patients and pupils from the start. She was the first white woman to live on Abemama since R.L.S. had been there with Mrs Stevenson for those few months in 1889; many mothers brought their ailing children to her out of sheer curiosity at first, but in the end it was her cures that kept them coming.
Most of her cases called only for sensible hygiene or care about diet, but there were emergencies which demanded a certain inventiveness. One day, the Dresser brought along a year-old baby who, he thought, must be very near death. It looked as if he were right. The little boy's entire back and buttocks were red-raw, stripped of skin by some spreading infection. For two months in hospital the rawness had continued to eat outwards from an original rash in the small of his back. He had screamed and struggled with the pain of it at first, but now he was so weak page 193that hardly a movement stirred him, His body was wasted beyond belief.
We had one of those medical guides issued by the Board of Trade for the use of sailormen beyond the call of doctors. But that volume was, perhaps naturally, silent on the subject of infantile skin complaints in the Line Islands, and our Truby King book did not specialize in this direction either. So Olivia had to proceed empirically. Her general guess was that some kind of food deficiency (I don't remember talking much of vitamin starvation in those days) had at least as much to do with the little boy's state as bacterial infection. Which substance he lacked, nature alone knew, but cod liver oil, pumpkin mash, brown rice water, young coconut jelly, and the yeasty precipitate of fermented coconut toddy seemed to promise a hopeful variety of answers. The technique was to get as much as possible of every one of them into him in the course of each day, leaving the ultimate choice to nature's commonsense. As for the skin trouble, Olivia guessed it needed soothing as well as antisepsis, and attacked it with an unguent of her own invention. Her prescription for the mixture was – castor oil, one tablespoonful; glycerine, one tablespoonful; tincture of iodine, ten drops. The stuff was ladled over the small boy's back and buttocks and covered with cotton wool. Whether it was the vitamins, or the ointment, or both that triumphed in the end we had no means of knowing; but in two months the baby had put on nine pounds and was crawling around gaily with the skin as sleek as satin on his back.
Our back premises were conveniently situated for Olivia's less innocent purposes up against the enclosure of the female gaol. That commodious building consisted of a single forty-by-thirty-foot room enclosed in heatproof walls of packed coral lime. Its deep-eaved thatch of pandanus leaf was raised on studs five feet above the top of the wall, so as to allow a continuous play of fresh air beneath the roof. It was the most heavenly-cool building on the Government station and, as Olivia observed in our third or fourth month there, absolutely wasted for the most part, because Abemama women were so law-abiding.
I personally felt that the chronic emptiness of the gaol owed page 194less to the freedom of Abemama women from original sin than to a certain chivalrous prejudice of the Native Court's against consigning ladies to the lock-up. But it was no part of my functions to interfere with the Court's acquittals on points of fact, and I did agree with Olivia that the beautiful empty gaol offered amenities as much to be desired for sick women as for sinful ones. As a result, Olivia collared it, after about a month's feeble resistance on my part, as a centre for the pre-natal care and education of ailing expectant mothers.
The Native Magistrate was delighted with the arrangement, and co-operated in a way that threatened to cause embarrassment at first. His argument (as we heard later) was that, as the gaol had been converted from an aridly penal institution into a first-class school for expectant mothers, it was now worth practically any young woman's while to be locked up in it. He accordingly directed his village kaubure and policemen to take more vigilant cognizance than they had formerly taken of offences committed by females of child-bearing age, in order that these, by being sent to prison, might take advantage of the course of instruction initiated by Olivia. We first learned of his commendable enthusiasm when, after a session of the Native Court that I had not attended, a flood of eleven cheerful young women (convicted of offences ranging from abusive language to assault upon a policeman) suddenly presented themselves to the wardress, with garlands of flowers on their heads, for immediate incarceration.
Olivia had at the time five patients comfortably housed in the gaol, and said she could not possibly move a single one of them out on the spur of the moment. The floor-space admitted of only seven more inmates, allowing an area of ten by ten for each person. The immediate problem was, therefore, to reduce from eleven to seven the number of the new candidates for admission. I felt that this might solve itself by natural erosion in the course of my routine review of the sentences inflicted. But the hope was a vain one; all the sentences were in perfect order and, beyond that, not a single young woman showed the least wish to appeal. On the contrary, one and all said they wanted to stay as long as the law allowed them, and longer if possible, so as to page 195learn everything Olivia had to teach them about how ailing expectant mothers ought to be treated. The two who had achieved three months each for joint assault and battery upon a policeman burst into tears and protests at the cruel idea that justice might in their case be tempered with mercy. They regarded themselves as scholarship-holders, so to speak, among the ruck of girls whose crimes had earned them only a week or two of prison.
I could, of course, hardly admit their main argument that, having been sentenced in due and proper order to terms of imprisonment, they now had an absolute right to use the prison as their education centre. But, on the other hand, an absolute obligation was upon me to see that the sentences duly and properly passed by the Native Court were carried out. So all the ladies had to be taken in. The wardress was surprised and annoyed at my weakness; it meant an unprecedented amount of work for her, and besides, she regarded the gaol as belonging now solely to Olivia, herself and the ailing expectant mothers. She made me feel as if I were quite the worst criminal in the piece. I had some initial difficulty with Olivia too; she said the idiotic working of the law would be very bad for her patients. However, we managed to get round the problem of overcrowding at once. The convicted ladies most kindly agreed to sleep in the clean thatched working sheds that stood shaded by palms within the gaol yard. It was, therefore, only innocent folk – that is to say, the wardress and patients – who occupied the actual lock-up at night.
The Native Magistrate was delighted with that arrangement too, because, as he said, it not only provided for the proper segregation of the criminal population but also made everyone feel free in spite of being in prison. I felt the same myself, but ventured to warn him that if the wave of female delinquency continued on Abemarna at that rate, it would be a pity, because it would force me to drive the ailing expectant mothers out of gaol. He replied with a cautiously worded conjecture that we had seen the worst of it, and, strangely enough, we never had more than three convictions a month after that. Furthermore, there were no new cases whatever until all but two of the page 196original eleven had left us weeping for the sorrow of their enlargement and promising to return as soon as possible.
I abstained, after due reflection, from reporting the matter to headquarters. The truth is, I found it more than difficult to make out a convincing case for the summary misappropriation of one of His Majesty's Proclaimed Gaols in furtherance of a little scheme of the District Officer's wife's, however benevolently inspired. The facts, as set forth in writing and staring at me from the paper, seemed to shout of jiggery-pokery from first to last. Olivia would not admit this – she said the facts were all right: it was only the crude way I put them – but she did suggest another good reason for keeping things off the record. Her basic contention was that the Colonial Office wouldn't want to hear of her doings because it made a point of ignoring the existence of District Officer's wives for any purpose whatever. That was so grimly true that her reminder made a man of me; I did not see, in the long run, why I should bring my own wife to high official notice only to have her (and, incidentally, myself too) condemned as a law-breaker. My conspiracy of silence with her was, of course, as deeply immoral as her theft of the prison, and I do not recommend any such goings-on for imitation by married District Officers in this age of swift political communications and retributions.
Yet, I cannot forbear from claiming that the issue was an extraordinarily happy one for all parties concerned. The village police and kaubure, inspired by the advantages which the prison offered to female offenders, became at least moderately zealous in bringing their womenfolk to court for breaches of the peace. The womenfolk, eager to learn what Olivia had to teach them, knew that all they had to do to qualify for a course of instruction was to indulge in the pleasure of cracking a village official on the head or some other equally rewarding crime. The ailing expectant mothers, surrounded by constantly renewed drafts of these interested and willing helpers, ailed so luxuriously that it was difficult to get rid of them, even when they ceased altogether to ail. The end result was the dissemination of a very reasonable knowledge of pre-natal hygiene and infant welfare among the women of Abemama. As a respectable retired official page 197I naturally hold no brief for lawlessness, but I have often wondered how much the prestige of British administration in the wilds owes to the sane derision with which District Officers' wives, bent on good works and getting them done, sometimes treat the pettifogging man-made regulations that hog-tie their intimidated husbands. The total gain will never be calculated on earth, for the husbands are usually as shy as I was about furnishing official reports, but it must bulk enormous in the books of the Recording Angel. I hope so, anyhow.
My being the husband of a healer like Olivia and the successor of a man like George Murdoch sometimes led the villagers to expect more medical help from me than I was qualified to give them. It was a matter of history on Abemama that George had once removed a man's leg above the knee rather than stand by and let him die of the spread of gangrene from a compound fracture. I saw the patient's stump twelve years after the event and asked George, the next time I saw him, how he had tackled the job. His answer was typically laconic: 'Anaesthetics, laddie? Well, not precisely anaesthetics. But I had six grand men to hold him down. You can't allow too many gymnastics in an operation like that. Instruments, ye say? I had a scalpel for the soft parts, and a hacksaw for the bone, and a spirit lamp to sterilize them with. I had some catgut forbye to tie up the big blood-vessels, and some coal-tar to dip the stump in when I'd sewn the flaps o' skin over it.'
This was all I ever got out of him personally. It was O'Reilly, the Medical Officer, who told me that he had picked up a lot of anatomy in the course of years by going to look at operations in Tarawa hospital. I had watched a good many operations at Tarawa myself, but I never felt that my observations qualified me for surgery to the extent of amputating limbs. Nevertheless, there were certain things one could not possible refuse to attempt in the absence of anyone more competent to do them. I was faced with one of them in our third month at Abemama, when a middle-aged villager was carried into my office and laid on the floor with a request that I would at once cut the 'sting' of a sting-ray out of his leg.
A sting-ray is a dangerous fish to catch on hook and line page 198because of its whiplike tail armed at the tip with a pair of bony, brittle, five-inch, barbed spines as sharp as needles. If it is hauled incautiously close before being despatched, the whip sizzles from the water and, in a flash, one of those spines is left buried in the fisher's body. The brute seems to aim at the stomach as a rule, and many a death from peritonitis is the result. My patient was lucky to have escaped only with a sting lodged in the big outside muscle of his thigh. But even that was perilous; there is a filthy slime on the broken-off spine, which quickly leads to septicaemia if the thing is left embedded in the wound.
'But why cut it out?' I said. 'Why not just pull it out with a pair of pinchers?'
'If you pull it out,' they replied, 'the barbs will break off inside him, and then, in a day or a week, he will die of the poison. The doctor always cuts them out whole and cleans the wound with the brown medicine that burns.'
I supposed they meant iodine by the brown medicine that burned. I had iodine, but, as I protested, I was not a doctor, and had nothing to stop the bleeding with.
They looked at me sorrowfully: 'The flesh will bleed. But the sting is buried in a muscle, and muscles, as you know, do not bleed.'
I did not know anything of the kind; the fact was entirely new to me, and I only half believed them until the Hospital Dresser confirmed it. 'Very well,' I said to him in a last wriggle, 'you know a lot more about it than I do – you get ahead with it.'
'Sir,' he replied, 'if I cut him and he dies, I shall be dismissed, for I have no certificate for performing operations. But if you cut him and I sew him up, I shall not be dismissed even in the event of his death, because I shall be able to say to the Doctor, "Behold! Grimble cut him and I tried to save his life by sewing him up".'
That seemed to settle it to everyone's moral satisfaction. I felt that not even the Colonial Office could have defined its own attitude towards a District Officer's political liabilities more clearly; so I gave in. After applying a tourniquet with what seemed to me much skill, the Dresser handed me a lancet which page 199he used for opening boils and had sterilized in the flame of a spirit-lamp; he stood by with swabs for whatever bleeding there was (which seemed to me a lot), while my victim's friends kept the incision conveniently gaping by tension on his thigh from either side of it. The pain of my clumsy efforts must have been frightful for him, especially when I had to fish in the wound with the tweezers for broken bits of barb. The sweat poured out of him, but he lay from beginning to end without a gasp or a wince. The Dresser saved his life, as arranged, by sewing him up, while I went outside and was sick.
I was a little more experienced in midwifery than surgery, thanks to the teaching of Native Medical Practitioner Sowani. Mighty-limbed, six-foot Sowani, son of a Fijian father and a Tongan mother, prince of fishermen and king of canoe-racers, was also the pride and glory of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Medical Service. He had been trained as a Native Practitioner at the Suva Central Hospital and sent up to Tarawa in the early nineteen hundreds. There he served for the next thirty-five years, absorbing all the surgery European Medical Officers had to teach him. Doctors came, doctors went-and sometimes there were long gaps between appointments to that obscure, ill-paid, exacting service – but Sowani went on forever, the constant factor of safety at Tarawa Hospital. According to our Senior Medical Officer O'Reilly, himself a fine surgeon, there was no major abdominal operation that he could not perform as well as the average European practitioner and, in the field of obstetrics, no case of abnormal presentation that he could not handle better than most.
It was necessarily the cases of abnormal presentation that Sowani introduced me to at Tarawa. No Gilbertese woman of those days would dream of calling for medical help in normal circumstances. Childbearing as a function had no terror and little discomfort for those lissom-bodied mothers. When the hour of labour came, their single fear was for the evil magic that enemy sorcerers might direct against them, and that was a thing their mothers and grandmothers knew better how to circumvent than any imported medical authority, they thought. Beyond this too, the Gilbertese women's deep modesty about being seen page 200wholly naked – even by their own husbands – worked always against the intrusion of doctors. It was only when the village midwives' skill and counter-magic had failed to bring a child to birth, and the mother was near death, that the medical department was ever given a look-in. And there was one particular kind of case – beyond the help of any human power, as they believed – that white doctors were never invited to attend. I suppose it might be called a false pregnancy in medical parlance, but there was rather more behind it than that term usually implies.
As I was struggling one morning in the office with accounts, the queer high-pitched wailing of a woman began to distract me from my work. It did not strike loud on my ears, for it came wavering through the trees from the Native Government quarters a hundred yards off; what forced it on my notice was its insistence; it fluctuated between two monotonous semitones and there was hardly a break in it. I fought it with irritation for half an hour, but, as I listened, the strange quality of it began to make me uneasy. I got up at last and walked over to the Native Government lines.
I found the wailing girl in the home of her father, one of the station policemen. She sat there naked, head back, eyes shut, her mouth stiffly agape, as if levered open by an unseen hand to make way for her desolate cry. The cry itself seemed, queerly, not to be hers at all, but rather a sound forced through her throat by some alien thing inside her. But perhaps that was only my morbid reaction to the terrible distension of her stomach. From immediately under her ribs she was so swollen that the taut skin, stretched as it seemed to bursting point, shone like satin.
Her mother tried to cover her with a sheet when I entered, but, without a moment's interruption of her keening, she flung it away. She had first stripped off her clothes, the old woman said, when her stomach had begun to swell the night before. The swelling had started after she had woken with a wild scream, round about midnight. Since then, she had sat naked and bolt upright, impregnably silent and grinding her teeth while the distension grew and grew, until this morning, an hour ago, when she had started to wail.page 201
'But why didn't you call someone last night,' I asked: 'the Dresser or me? You knew she was ill.'
The old woman remained dumb. I turned to the father. 'And what did you do about it?' He hung his head mutely too. I scribbled a note to the Dresser, telling him to bring sedatives –I couldn't think of anything better – and rounded on the parents again; but I could get only one thing out of them before the Dresser arrived: 'Nothing can be of any avail against this sickness,' they said, 'for it is the work of Terakunene. She called his name when she awoke.'
Terakunene was the sword-fish spirit, the procurer of women for men. It was to him that a rejected suitor turned for revenge upon the girl who refused him. His help was enlisted, according to tradition, through a hair of the girl's head. If the unsuccessful suitor could possess himself of one, he tied it around his thigh, just above the knee, and wore it so for three days, fasting alone in some solitary place by the ocean beach. On the third evening, just after dark, he built a small fire of sticks, sat before it with his face towards the sea, plucked the hair from his thigh, and, waving it back and forth over the flames, muttered north, west and south in turn:
Go thou to make her answer, even that woman Nei Ioa,
Go thou to make her come to me.
Go thou to madden her if she comes not.
Go thou to kill her if she comes not.
(If she comes not) she shall be mad for me,
She shall swell with thy child for me,
She shall be dead for me.
She shall be dead!
With the last 'dead', he threw the hair into the fire. The belief was that unless the girl gave him his will of her within the next three days, the sword-fish spirit himself would visit her on the third night. She would wake mad from a dream of his embraces, shrieking his name, her belly swelling with his child. On the third night after that, she would die.
The Dresser arrived with bromide, the only sedative he had. It proved useless. I would have tried putting her to sleep with page 202morphine, but I had none. (I went nowhere without it in the years that followed.) We tried whatever we had for windy colic and digestive troubles, but the Dresser's stock of medicines included nothing but the most elementary made-up mixtures, and she fought madly against every attempt to dose her. We got very little into her – but I doubt, in any case, if more would have made the least difference. She ceased to wail that evening and slept a little from time to time, but refused all food. The distension continued unrelieved. She died the third night. Within an hour of her death her stomach was normal again. The parents had predicted that. They said Terakunene's monstrous children were born only when the mother was dead.
If Terakunene magic did come into this case, as the parents and villagers believed, it is probable that the poor girl's revengeful lover told her he was about to set the sword-fish spirit on her; in that event, self-hypnosis, quickened by her inheritance of age-old dreads, could conceivably have done the rest – or so I have been told. But I never found a scrap of evidence to show that Terakunene magic had indeed been used. The parents clung hard to the fact that she had woken up screaming the spirit's name; but this proved nothing save that she had had a nightmare. For the rest, her sickness had followed the course traditionally ascribed to the working of Terakunene spells; but village traditions and inferences drawn from them do not make medico-legal evidence. My personal belief is not that the symptoms of the disease were brought on, in this or any other case, by magic, but that the magic and the people's belief in it were simply the by-products of a myth which attempted to explain the symptoms. What the terrible sickness was is more likely to be discovered by medical investigation than by psychical research.
By good fortune, one of the abnormal cases I had seen Sowani deal with at Tarawa was what he called in Gilbertese a double-hand presentation. I was glad of the experience a year or so later on the island of Nonouti. I knew – or thought I knew – roughly what was in store for me when word came that a double-hand case was waiting in a village up-lagoon for whatever help I could afford. The girl who brought the message said that the baby's down-stretched hands had been born eight hours before, but page 203nothing the midwives could dq would bring the head and body to birth. Nobody supposed I could succeed where they had failed, but as the mother would certainly die if nothing else happened, and the village kaubure had said they might be punished if she died as a result of their trying any more, perhaps I would like to see what I personally could do about it. It seemed an ungracious message at first hearing, but in point of fact, its intention was infinitely courteous. The midwives merely wished to assure me in advance that if I did not succeed in my effort nobody in the village would blame me for failing.
I was on my back with dysentery at the time, but I could not possibly ignore such a summons. I sent the messenger off at once with a promise to be there anon, and had myself rowed, with such paraphernalia and antiseptics as I possessed, up lagoon to the village. But I did not feel good-tempered on the way. Amoebic dysentery is a fretful, weakening business and I thought Fate might have timed things better for all concerned, especially my grudging self. I mention this because of the pretty, golden-brown girl who met us on the village beach. She signalled us in from where she leaned, crowned with a white-wreath and smoking a pipe, against a palm tree at the beach head. She was evidently there to guide me, but she did not move from her restful position when I stumbled up the loose sand towards her. That irritated me in my peevish mood. I was angrier still when my groggy legs gave out and I fell sprawling. I shouted, 'Here, come and help me up,' with never a 'please' or a smile.
She was dressed only in a short kilt of smoke-cured water weeds and it was easy to see, as she came to pick me up, that she was pregnant. When she got closer, I saw that her face was pallid and deeply drawn. That in itself reproved my rudeness. But it was her kindness that most abashed me. 'Alas!' she cried as soon as she saw how weak I was, 'you are ill, Man of Matang. Alas! They should not have called you!' and, putting her arm around my waist, made me walk with mine about her shoulders while she carried my bag for me.
I knew that by 'they' she meant the sick woman's midwives and told her – I am glad to remember – that they had been quite page 204right to call me. That seemed to reassure her. We struggled rather feebly together up the glaring beach and rested in the shade of the palms by a cook-house on the flat. It occurred to me there to tell her that I did not yet know the sick woman's name. She looked at me searchingly for a time and then, her wan face breaking into a strangely beautiful smile, 'She is called Nei Maie,' she answered. 'Have you ever seen her?' and added with a sudden shout of laughter when I said No, 'Do you think you can drag the baby out of her?'
The coarseness of her phrase about another woman's misfortune and the callousness of her laughter made a too shocking contrast with her dignity and kindness of a moment before. My anger flared up again. I drew away from her: 'You laugh, woman – you will yourself be bearing a child before long? Nei Maie is near death, and you laugh? Or is it that you do not know how near death is to her? Are you wicked or perhaps only a fool?'
She laughed again in my face, with plain merriment this time: 'I am not wicked. I am not a fool. I know that woman is nearly dead. But I do not pity her. Why should she be afraid of dying? Perhaps she would like to die.'
She had the brilliant laughter of her race, carefree and golden voiced, but I was too outraged to respond. 'We waste time,' I said. 'Bring me quickly to the house.'
We walked down the lily-bordered village street, she chuckling from time to time, I aloof from her ruthless humour, leaning nevertheless heavily upon her shoulders. The villagers called cheerful greeting to us as we passed. After a hundred yards or so, she stopped at a house with no one in it, saying, 'I pray you, be seated here a little, while I go and prepare that woman for your coming.' She leaned forward over the raised floor, put my bag down, and pulled a mat to the edge for me to sit upon. Then, 'We shall meet again,' she murmured and slowly walked to a house across the road, hung with leaf screens. Before she lifted a screen to enter, she turned her beautiful smile once more towards me and called, 'We think the baby is dead. But that woman does not in truth want to die. Perhaps she is indeed afraid, a little. O, that you could drag the baby out of her!'
The repetition of that crude phrase, and the wambling of my page 205stomach, and the swooning heat of midday once more overcame my temper. 'Hurry, you hussy!' I bawled at her, and she disappeared, her smile wiped out, behind the screen.
Nei Maie's mother called me into the house over the road ten minutes later. I had lain all the time thinking with renewed self-pity how very ill I felt. I had the grace to forget it, though, when I saw Nei Maie. I did not see her face, because they had covered it for modesty's sake with a sheet, but she looked like a dead woman, lying prone on her mat, the midwives seated at her head and feet fanning her. Her lax limbs were flung wide as if in a gesture of mortal exhaustion. I thought with rage of the callous laughter of the girl who had met me on the beach.
I tried to do things as I had seen Sowani do them at Tarawa. I was helped a little in my geography by having read Playfair's tome on abnormal presentations. But where Sowani had finished his work in under an hour, it took my fumbling, frightened hand over two hours to get the baby in a position to be born. My memory of what I did is one of blind groping against masses that my touch could not identify and resistances that I dared not, for fearful ignorance, force. And through it all, save for a few small shuddering whimpers, Nei Maie lay still and silent.
I gave her ergot and the baby was born at last. Though it was not living, there was no trouble with the after-birth, or haemorrhage, or temperature, or any other complication; the mother was, in short, saved. That was important, but it is not, for all that, the point of the story. Doing last things for my patient before leaving, I suddenly remembered the girl on the beach. I felt pretty righteous by that time, and it seemed to me that a slating for her heartless crudities would do her a lot of good. I asked Nei Maie's mother who and where she was: 'I wish to speak to her before I go home,' I said, 'for she talks with a bad tongue and there is no kindness in her.'
The old woman looked at me but did not speak. I repeated my question, with more information about what the girl had said.
'But, Sir, you have indeed dragged the baby out of this woman,' she replied with a smile, 'and we thank you for it.'
'But who is this girl? That is what I am asking you,' I insisted page 206pettishly. There was a long pause before she answered, 'She is my daughter.'
'Then where is she? She must be near at hand. Bring her to me.'
She suddenly took my hand in hers and smiled into my eyes: 'Sir, I have only one daughter, and she lies here before you. Please do not be angry with her.'