A Pattern of Islands
10 — Tarawa Again
My service in the central Gilberts faded out rather drearily with three months of dysentery (the only real plague of Europeans in the Gilberts was amoeba) from which I was rescued by the providential arrival of a ship at the end of 1917. The doctor on board ordered me to Ocean Island for repairs and, within a month from then, I sailed for Sydney with the family, on sick-leave, weighing a little over seven stone. I went with permission – at last – to get myself recruited for war service; but they told me in Sydney to get rid of my appendix instead, which I did, and that put an end to my last chance of joining up. I returned to the Gilberts alone early in May, leaving Olivia behind at Bowral, New South Wales, for the birth of our third daughter, Monica Hope.
When I got as far as Tarawa, I found there would be no ship to Abemama for three or four months. I was glad of that excuse to stay a while, for things were in a queer state there. The District Officer who had replaced me in the Northern Gilberts had now been sent down to the Ellice Islands, and the Native Government was facing up alone to serious unrest about landownership.
The situation was due, in a way, to my own silly fault. Passing through Tarawa on the way to Ocean Island five months before, I page 207had told my great friend Mautake-Maeke, the Chief Kaubure, an exciting piece of news; a proposal of mine to establish a Lands Commission in the Gilberts had been approved. The matter was not confidential, but no official date had yet been fixed for starting work (and, as a matter of fact, no beginning could eventually be made until 1922); I should have known better than to talk about it so prematurely, especially at Tarawa.
Tarawa was always at high tension about land-ownership. It dated from the dramatic day I have already told of, when the coming of h.m.s. Royalist had interrupted a war between the House of Teabike and the House of Auatabu, the two factions that had split the island for centuries up to 1892. Had Royalist arrived a single day later than she did, the House of Teabike would have become, by right of conquest, overlords of every square yard of land on Tarawa. But the Royal Navy saved Auatabu alive, and Captain Davis very rightly ordered that land ownership on the island should remain as it had been before the war began. The leaders of Teabike, thus disappointed in the eleventh hour of certain victory and its fruits, never really got over their frustration. Their faction was by far the richer of the two, but they went on wanting everything.
From 1892 onwards, the people of Teabike flooded successive District Officers with claims for the 'return' of the land which they had just not conquered, and, unfortunately, many of them got their way. This excited counter-claims from Auatabu – hundreds of them – going back to wars a hundred years forgotten. No less unfortunately, many of these succeeded too. Soon, it was as if the status quo ruling of Captain Davis – the only one that set a logical, remembered date for the judgement of any case – had never been made. By 1915, the land-affairs of Tarawa were in a state of chaos, and a spirit of estrangement charged with all the bitterness of the old wars reigned between the six middle villages of Tarawa, where the Auatabu folk lived, and the twelve villages to north and south of them, which belonged to Teabike.
It was Mautake-Maeke's own father, 'Old Maeke', as we used to call him, who had started the trouble I found on my return from Australia. Maeke was a leading chief of the Teabike faction. He had been Island Scribe in his day and there was nothing page 208he did not know about the bitterness that the old land-jealousies could arouse. But he was old and could not resist a dig at the other side. He launched a whispering campaign about my proposed Lands Commission. His story was that I intended to dispossess the House of Auatabu of all the lands it would have lost but for the coming of H.M.S. Royalist, and hand these over lock, stock and barrel to the House of Teabike.
His whisper was put out in Betio, Teabike's village at the south end of Tarawa. It gathered force there, and went forth as a shout of triumph across-lagoon to Buariki at the north end. Buariki's maneaba roared with the news. The lie swept like a storm from north and south through the other sixteen villages. The people of Auatabu rushed to their maneabas to discuss it. 'Alas! this is a true word,' they said, 'for Mautake the son of Maeke is the friend of Grimble, and it is for love of him that the Man of Matang will take our lands away from us.' In the end, they swore a joint oath never to submit to the rulings of any Lands Commission, and the men began to prepare their shark-tooth spears for war: 'We will stand up on a day before Grimble's return,' they agreed, 'and kill the men of Teabike or die in the attempt. It is better to die than live on without an inheritance. And the signal for our rising shall be the killing of Mautake the son of Maeke.'
All these things had happened in early January, four months before my return. Since then, Mautake had done all he could to give the lie to Maeke's boast. Disowned as a traitor by his own folk and constantly stoned as the arch-enemy in his passage through the villages of Auatabu, he had maintained an unceasing patrol from end to end of Tarawa's length, trudging more than forty times alone the thirty-mile road between Betio and Buariki and lying unguarded in the village maneabas wherever sleep took him. Not a man would come out to meet him any-where, so he made a town crier of himself. 'Listen to me!' he called as he passed, night or day, between the silent houses. 'Listen to me, all people! I come to tell you, I, Mautake the son of Maeke, that the House of Teabike lies. You will hear the truth from Kurimbo (Grimble) when he comes. Wait for Kurimbo.'
For three months and two weeks his courageous constancy page 209held them all in leash. But there came a night in a village of Auatabu when voices answered him out of the dark, 'Mautake-o-o! It is thy turn to listen. Return to us but once more, and thou shait die, and none shall see thy face again.'
He replied without hesitation, 'It is good: I shall be with you tomorrow.'
He had been a pagan until then, but the next day he went to Father Guichard of the Sacred Heart Mission. 'I am going oack to that village at once,' he said; 'my ancestor the Moon will protect me. Nevertheless, if perhaps I am killed and my body is thrown to the sharks there can be no straightening of the path of my ghost past Nakaa's net. Therefore baptize me, so that I may go the Christians' road to paradise.' The Father baptized him after hesitation, as a man on the point of death.
He returned to the village that night. Walking between the black shadows of the houses, he discarded his usual message for another: 'Here I am, you people, Mautake the son of Maeke. You said you would kill me if I returned. Let it be so if you will: I sleep in your maneaba tonight. I will die so that you may better remember these, my last words, the House of Teabike lies; wait for Kurimbo.'
When I arrived, three weeks later, it was not he but Father Guichard who told me of how he had gone to be baptized. What happened to him in the village was revealed to me later, in a way so typical of the Gilbertese idea of drama that I dare not pre-empt the climax. The immediate, personal account he gave me of the part he had played treated his lonely patrol as nothing but a piece of ordinary official routine.
Neither resentment against anyone nor any sign of hankering after praise came out of him. He was the perfect official, absolutely uninterested in himself as the hero of a piece, bent only on getting the thing settled and forgotten for everybody's happiness. His only reply to my thanks for what he had done was, 'There is peace for a little now, but the path is not yet open to the end. Perhaps, if you will call a meeting at Abaokoro, we shall find the end together.'
Abaokoro was the Native Government Station on Tarawa's upper arm, where it sood like a buffer state between Teabike's page 210six northern villages and Auatabu's six central ones. Living there, eleven miles across-lagoon from the white man's official headquarters at Betio, a District Officer could feel himself wholly encompassed by the life of his people. So I settled down galdly in the thatched transit-quarters at Abaokoro, while Mautake did his last patrol alone to call the people together.
A week after that, I took my place at the table in the vast Native Government maneaba under the scrutiny of two thousand pairs of watchful, unsmiling eyes. There was dead silence as I plugged my painful way through the things I was bound to say of Teabike's lies, and Auatabu's violences, and the nasty mess they had piled up for my return.
As I talked into their rigid silence, I remembered rather wryly how, three years earlier in that very maneaba, the old Native Magistrate had predicted that my words would one day blow upon them like a strong wind. It was not happening so this day, I thought. But yet it came through to me somehow that the minds behind those veiled eyes were not unfriendly to Mautake or myself. Something in the air – I don't know what – said quite distinctly that the force that held them so grimly unresponsive was the precarious balance of some kind of apprehension that they felt for each other.
What I did not know was that every man in that packed crowd had a knife handy for self-defence under the mat at his feet. Mautake knew, but he did not tell me until afterwards. I think his judgement was right. Had I known it at the time, I should almost certainly have taken the gesture for a prelude to attack, not defence, and tried to be heavy-handed about it, with who-can-say-what consequences. As things were, I did get the right impression: their fear of each other was what I had chiefly to guard against, and I managed to avoid saying anything that might set them fighting for shame of seeming fearful.
Mautake himself invented the way for me to set Auatabu's doubts about the Lands Commission at rest. 'If you ask them now to agree to a final judgement,' he told me before the meeting, 'they will refuse, for they have sworn to have no truck with a Commission. Another thing must be offered to them … something that is not final. Do not say to them, "I come to settle page 211disputes;" say to them instead, "I come to listen to disputes so that I may advise you whether there is any sense in all these big words or not." Be very sure to say that your advice will not stand as a law to bind them. Make it clear that you only want to show men of good sense what kind of dispute the Lands Commission is never likely to listen to, so that many may be saved from making fools of themselves when the day of final judgement comes.'
It was a brilliant idea and I followed it to the letter. Everybody was bursting to talk, but nobody wanted to commit himself. I could almost hear the tension in the maneaba relaxing – like the hum of a dynamo running down – as I explained the notion of a council composed of village elders and myself which promised to treat them to nothing but advice. A relieved murmur swept through the place as I finished. But there was just one more thing that Auatabu wanted …
Nobody rose to speak; only a voice called from far back in the crowd, 'Mautake-o-o!'
'Stand and speak!' answered Mautake.
Still nobody stood, but the voice came again, 'Mautake! Will Kurimbo not be afraid?' and stopped short.
Mautake smiled: 'What marvel is this? Afraid of what?'
'Will Kurimbo come to us in our village and sleep there without the men of Teabike around him?'
'Which village, O man without a name?'
'Any village of Auatabu.'
'I will bring myself to Tabontebike tomorrow night.'
'Not with thee, Mautake-o-o! Not with any man. Alone. We of Auatabu would speak with him alone.'
Some voices were raised in protest, but Mautake silenced them: 'Kurimbo has walked much with the men of Teabike in Betio,' he said. 'Is it not right that those of Auatabu should now see him among them?' Then, turning to me as if I had heard nothing of this, he repeated, 'The men of Auatabu ask if you will pass a night alone among them, and I know not what to reply …'
In the circumstances, there was nothing left for me to say but what he himself had said to Auatabu four weeks earlier: 'I shall page 212be with you tomorrow.' That ended our first day's business, and the people returned to their villages.
The next evening, an orderly took me down to Tabontebike by canoe, strung up my mosquito-net in the maneaba there, and left me with some tins of food and a book of Hazlitt's essays for company. It was perfectly obvious that nobody intended to do me any harm, but I couldn't help wondering exactly why the men of Auatabu wanted me all alone like that. My puzzlement increased as midnight passed and nobody came to visit me. But I fell asleep at last, half-smiling at the inveterate Gilbertese appetite for drama that nothing could ever hustle to a premature climax.
The stage certainly seemed set for drama when they did arrive. A sound of creeping steps awoke me. I lifted my net to find a dozen of them surrounding me. By the dim light of my hurricane lamp I saw spears in their hands. They stood wordless while I arose, trussed the slack of the net up over its canvas roof, and sat down again on the sleeping mat.
I won't deny that the spears struck me as sinister. The sight of them made me feel strangely naked in my pyjamas. But I did manage, as soon as I was seated, to give them an ordinary greeting. I got an immediate reward for that. The quick heartiness of their response, 'Ko na auri-o-o' all together, swept away any notion I may have had that they had come to do me in.
'Sit down,' I said, perhaps a trifle breathlessly, and they sat. I handed tobacco around.
It was only when pipes were going strong that their leader spoke, and I learned why they had made such a point of my being alone. They wanted to tell me a story. 'It was thus, with spears in our hands,' said the spokesman, 'that we came to kill that friend of thine, even Mautake the son of Maeke, when he dared to return that night and sleep alone in our maneaba …'
I remembered as he talked how Mautake's cousin, Teriakai, had said to me once, 'If you stay still in the sea, the tiger-shark will charge you. If you swim away from them in fear, they will smell your fear and chase you. If you swim without fear towards them, they will be afraid and leave you in peace.' I think it is the same with angry men as with tiger-sharks, except that, with page 213human crowds, awe rather than fear is the thing that lonely courage inspires. That, at least, was the meaning of the spokesman's story for me …
'We had sworn among ourselves to kill him if he returned,' he said; 'and so, when he came, we took up our spears. And when it was past midnight, we crept to our meeting-place near this maneaba. But I came with sadness in my heart. I said in my heart, "I do not want to kill this man", for I was kunainga (awed), as it were in the presence of a spirit. Yet if I had been alone, I should surely have killed him, because I had sworn to do so. Each man of us, alone, would have killed him, for shame of breaking the oath.
'We gathered in the blackness under the trees, because the moon was bright. There were twelve of us. And we knew that Mautake would be lying in the boti of Maerua, the place of his fathers within the maneaba, with his feet towards the west. So we said, "Let six of us stand on his north side and six on the south, and strike all together when the word is given.' I myself was to say the word. I did not refuse, because I was ashamed. And we went to the side of the maneaba by the boti of Maerua.
'We stood by the side of the maneaba, but behold then a marvellous thing! The moon stepped between two clouds, and it was light. We saw each others' faces. I looked into the eyes of my friends, and I knew that their hearts refused that work, even as mine did, because they also were kunainga. And because the first word had been given to me, I said, "Men-o-o! What are we about to do? Our hearts refuse this work!" One answered me, "It is true. Our hearts are heavy." Others said after him, "It is true. This man is, as it were, a spirit and we are kunainga in his presence." Others said again, "If this man is so ready to die for what he has told us, perhaps his word and not the word of his father is the true one." So I said, "Men-o-o! Let us free each other of our oath." And we freed each other, and were glad, and returned to our houses.
'And many among us said after that night, "Perhaps Mautake has indeed not lied to us. Perhaps Kurimbo will indeed not take away our lands and give them to the men of Teabike." So we stoned Mautake no more when he walked through our villages.page 214
'And there were some who said, "Let us tell Mautake now that we will listen to the Lands Commission." But others answered, "Hold! That is too great a word. Let us wait first and hear what Kurimbo says when he arrives."
'And others said again, "Yes, and even if Kurimbo speaks us fair when he arrives, how shall we know his inward thought? How shall we know he is our true friend after what we have done to Mautake?"
'So, when Mautake came to call us to the meeting at Abao-koro, this was the way of it: we agreed among ourselves that we would go to the meeting, but we said to one another, "We will seek a sign from Kurimbo, whether he is our friend or not. If he is not our friend, he will refuse to come alone to us. But if he does not refuse to come alone, then we shall know that there is no anger against us in his heart." And behold! you did not refuse. So we know you are our friend.'
Dawn made a garden of wild rose and daffodil in the sky as they sailed me back to Abaokoro. We shared my bully-beef and biscuits among us for breakfast on the way. I don't know when I have ever enjoyed a meal more than that one.
I went straight to Mautake from the landing. He was glad to hear my story of the night's happenings, but he only smiled when I talked of his courage: 'I knew myself safe in my boti of Maerua,' he explained. 'Sleeping there, I was in the hand of the Moon, my Ancestor. And was I not right to believe in his love?' (The moon was male for the Gilbertese.) 'Did not those men of Auatabu relate how he showed their faces and hearts to each other, even as they came to kill me. And if it had not pleased him to save me alive, was I not safe from Nakaa's net after the Father had baptized me?'
But the people of his father's house could measure just how much cold nerve it had taken to risk what he had risked that night. The men of Teabike were proud to reclaim him as son and brother. The men of Auatabu, assured now that I bore them no secret grudge on his behalf, clamoured for the beginning of the Council of Advice that his statesmanship had conceived.
Hundreds flocked to our court. Thousands of lies were told. Wars two centuries old were dragged up. Victories nobody had page 215ever won were named. Mythical marriages, bogus adoptions, impossible gifts of old were invented. Aged ladies tottered in to orate about the angers and jealousies of their mothers and grandmothers before them. Customs and usages totally unknown were trumped up to prove inheritances that had never been enjoyed by man. It was scandalous. The answer to nine hundred and ninety-five grievances in every thousand simply had to be 'Sir (or Woman), it has given us a real treat to hear you, but really … this will never, never do for the Lands Commission.'
But they talked. They talked themselves dry. All the goading, gnawing prides and envies of five generations came surging out of them in that grand three months of free-for-anybody before the packed audience of the maneaba. You might think it could only have doubled the fury of ancient bitternesses to encourage such goings-on, but it did just the opposite. Mautake knew his people. The freedom to let themselves go, unrestrained, before the whole listening world of their island, friends and enemies alike, was what mattered to them most of all. It was as if the deepest need they felt was to purge themselves of a century of clotted rancours, regardless of consequences, in one last tremendous orgy of words.
As claim after egregious claim was found wanting, Auatabu's fear of what the Lands Commission might do to them wilted and died. The audience grew more and more hilarious. In the end, men of both factions began to laugh at their own claimants instead of at each other's, and to cheer the other side instead of the home team. The new friendliness spread outside the maneaba. Soon, families who had been at continuous enmity since the battle of Baretangaina in about 1870 were fraternizing. 'The porpoise is dead, the whale is sunk,' sang Tata-Teribabaiti, chief poet of the House of Teabike, the admired of all Tarawa. His song was the climax and crown of the council's work. It was at once a paean of praise and a satire on the overweening claims, now laid to rest, of his own faction. It ended with a jibe at the Teabike leader (his name does not matter) whose family had aspired to make themselves High Chiefs over Tarawa:page 216
'It is over' – Tata made him say – 'and where shall I go now?
It is over, you people: I shall get me a ship and disappear over the horizon.
For all is said, the first word and the last. I shall go out there, where the porpoise and the whale are sunk; I shall be High Chief of the ocean and King of all the fish – Unless – alas! – the Royalist comes again to prevent me.'
And then, to round it off, the poet's own envoi:
Behold! the back-and-forth, the dartings, the stabbings of my words are done!
For the talk is ended, the judgement judged
And there he goes now sailing over the horizon.
The porpoise is dead, the whale is sunk,
The thunder-cloud is fled from the sky,
The storm is over: a small, cool wind blows between the villages.
A cool wmd-o-o-o! O-o-a!
The poem was reckoned by the experts of Teabike to be a masterpiece of diction and, beyond that, a glorious joke against themselves. They set it to the music and statuesque gestures of a bino (sitting dance), put one hundred and twenty of their finest performers to practise it secretly, and produced it one gala night in the Native Government maneaba before an enthralled audience of two thousand. The thing swept Tarawa off its feet for admiration and laughter. For the next six months, nothing but that bino was danced in the villages of Auatabu and Teabike. So, the song of a poet confirmed the work of peace that Mautake's courage had made possible, and his initiative inspired. 'And that is as it should be,' said Tata, 'because, look you, the poet is the servant of brave men.'
The Whistling Ghosts of Arorae
The work of the Council of Advice was hardly well finished when a ship of the Japanese trading company in the Marshall Islands brought unexpected news to Tarawa. The company had decided to send no more of its vessels to pick up copra in the Gilbert group south of Butaritari. What worried me about this ultimatum was that a number of the longshore traders page 217down south were in the habit of holding the copra for the Japanese concern, which paid better prices than others. They had to be warned at once that their only buyers from that time on would be the rare British ships that came their way, and I was the only person there to do it. It was lucky, in the circumstances, that the 35-ton ketch Choiseul had come up from Abemama on her own business some days before and was waiting to take me back to the Central Gilberts. I chartered her that day for a quick run to the Southern Gilberts instead, and went on board the same evening so as to be sure of an early start next morning. Thus it was that I fared forth to meet the whistling ghosts.
Our first landfall was Onotoa Island, 270 miles from Tarawa. There was no ship's passage into the lagoon in those days, and only one canoe – the Native Magistrate's – was waiting for us outside the reef. A steep westerly swell was running; the reef was a-lee; it was tricky work manoeuvring my transfer with a suitcase and a steel despatch-box from the ketch to the canoe. I mention these points to leave it clear that no conversation passed between the ship and the canoe except the exchange of curt orders and responses about my transhipment. Certainly, nobody in the ship's crew shouted anything by way of gossip from the northern islands. I could not possibly have missed hearing it if they had.
There was no talk in the canoe until we had shot the big surf in the boat-passage, but when we had made calm water the Native Magistrate said suddenly apropos of nothing, 'We hear Tabanea is dead.'
The Tabanea he meant was my old friend the professional sorcerer of Tarawa. The death of a man like that could not fail to set the whole group talking, for there was not an island where he had not a crowd of customers for his peerless love-potions and amulets. But he wasn't dead, I told the Native Magistrate; I had seen him only the week before, heartily enjoying the great song and dance at Tarawa.
It did not seem to impress him, though; he chatted on as if I had not spoken; 'They say he died the day before yesterday, in the evening, of te bo maiaona (a blow from above him).'page 218
'What's a blow from above him? Who says? What ship brought the news? Certainly not ours,' I countered irritably.
It appeared that a blow from above him meant what we might call a seizure or stroke. He did not state who had spread the rumour, but said no ship had brought it. He was bound to say that; ours was, in fact, the only deep-sea craft in the Gilberts at the moment; the other was down in the Ellice group.
'So there you are,' I wound up rather pompously, 'it's just another silly bit of village tittle-tattle.'
'Tao eng (perhaps, yes),' he murmured, 'tao eng' – meaning roughly, 'Oh, well, let it go at that' – and changed the subject.
The whole thing had slipped out of my mind by the time we landed. I was so used to village rumours of that sort. Nobody else mentioned Tabanea to me for the forty-eight hours I stayed on Onotoa; probably the Magistrate had warned everybody that the subject irritated me: in any case, it was not until I got to Arorae, the last island of the Southern Gilberts, that the next thing happened. It never would have happened if I had spent only a day or two there, as elsewhere. But I found trouble in the place; the nature of it does not matter here; the point is, it forced me to stay. The ketch left with a promise to be back in a month or so.
Arorae lies out in the blue, 100 miles from Onotoa. It is a lagoonless wisp of coral sand and coconuts, open on every side to the towering Pacific swells. When westerly gales sweep up at it, the huge surf bellows week-long on the weather reef like a million driven bulls raging at the thresholds of the villages. The westerlies blew hard for most of my stay. I couldn't get away from that tortured roar, or the yelling of the coconut-crests in the wind. The ceaseless, smothering din did something to my relations with the people; somehow, it seemed to be always between us. I felt very lonely among them. Perhaps that made me a good subject for a game of brown man's bluff.
Bluff or not, it began when I had endured nearly a week of the place. My one familiar friend on Arorae, a retired Tarawa policeman, married to a local woman and on a visit to his in-laws, came to look me up. Tarawa men adore a comfortable chin-wag, especially in their own dialect when they are among strangers. I fancy that was what tempted him to be so extra-communicative page 219that evening. As soon as he was well seated on the guest-mat, he began newsily, 'So Tabanea is dead.'
I smiled, 'Now, now … you got that bit of gossip from Onotoa … by our ship.'
He denied this blankly. He said he had heard it the Sunday before last. I pointed out that his timing made nonsense for me: our ship had not even arrived at Onotoa by this date. But he persisted that our ship had nothing to do with the case. He had heard about Tabanea's death the Sunday before last from his wife's very aged and absolutely infallible kinswoman, Nei Watia.
'Nei Watia has another name as a baptized Christian, but, for this kind of thing, one must always call her Watia,' he explained.
'What kind of thing?' I naturally asked.
He was too wrapped up in his main theme to answer that at once. The old woman, he drove on, had mentioned two important details: Tabanea had died just before sunset, of a blow from above him.
I rubbed it in that the phrase was precisely the one that the Native Magistrate of Onotoa had used, but he overrode the irony: 'Naturally the words are the same,' he said, 'the news-bearers do not speak with two voices. What they reported in Onotoa they reported to Nei Watia also, here in Arorae.'
This was at least good entertainment, so I asked for more about Nei Watia's exceedingly single-voiced news-bearers.
It appeared they were alternatively called Taani-kanimomoi – The Whistlers. He said the Whistlers were the ghosts of dead relations … not the very long dead ones … the more recently dead. These made a constant habit of returning to the Gilberts. Their domain was the air (he called it 'the layer of wind' – as it were, the invisible plane) just above the level of the coconut-crests. At that height, they flew up and down the islands seeing and hearing everything that happened. They came lower from time to time and passed the news on to anyone alive who understood their speech. Not many people did understand it, because they spoke in whistles; but Watia was an adept; she had power; she could actually order her particular ghost to come along and answer questions whenever she wanted.page 220
I took his talk for a big boast. It was only by way of calling his bluff that I asked whether his infallible relation-in-law would undertake to ask her ghost a question from me. But, far from piping down, he put me on the spot instead.
'Aongkoa (Of course)' he replied at once. 'Is it indeed your wish that I should ask her?'
I found it was not particularly my wish, but I could not withdraw. The upshot was that he came back the next night with an invitation for me to go with him at once to Nei Watia.
I followed him through the bush to a stony, treeless space above the weather beach. It was a wild night; the place was shuddering and thundering with the fury of the surf; but the moonlight flooded it starkly between racing cloud-shadows. A solitary screened shack stood out in the open, fifty paces away. I saw the glimmer of a faint light through the plaited screens. He pointed: 'There is Nei Watia,' he said; 'I cannot go in with you,' and left me standing there. I watched him plunge back into the blackness of the bush.
The thatch was so low that I could not stand upright inside. A hurricane lamp was burning on the floor. An incredibly aged face was glaring up at me round the light, almost from floor-level. It had a cutty pipe in its mouth; its lips were moving but I heard no words. I stood there mute until a skeleton hand flailing above the face ordered me to be seated. I squatted, cross-legged as she was, on my side of the lamp, fascinated by that ruinous, wild-haired mask. The lips moved again, but the roaring of the night drowned her voice. I craned an ear forward. Then with atrocious suddenness the mask was convulsed and lunged up at me. She tore the pipe from her gums and shrieked into my face, 'Tabanea is dead!' Nothing but that. I had not recovered from the shock of it when the whistling began.
A single note, strident, like a cricket's, sounded from behind my left ear. I whipped my head around. Nobody was there. A second chirrup fell from the roof. I sprang to my feet; my head struck the ridge pole; the witch screamed with laughter; but I hardly noticed it, for the whistling was at once all around me. It wasn't harsh now, but multitudinous. It crowded in on my ears page 221wherever I turned, as if a host of tiny invisible birds were twittering up there in the shadows of the roof.
I dived out into the moonlight and pelted round the shed. In that white glare everything was visible. There was nobody on the roof, no tree, no sizeable rock within fifty yards where anyone could be hiding. Back under the thatch, I fell on hands and knees to stare into the crone's face. Her gums were clenched, but still the twittering went on overhead. There was no break in it even when she shouted at me, 'The Ancestor waits. What is your question?'
The Ancestor might have been her father for all I knew. I did not ask, but shouted back at once, sprawling there on my knees, 'When will the Japanese ship be returning to Arorae?'
She stared at me for a long moment: 'You have told us the ship will not return,' she said at last.
'Yes, yes, grandmother,' I replied, 'but perhaps I was wrong. What does the Ancestor say?'
Her answer was to twist her face over her huddled shoulder and howl at the roof, 'The Man of Matang asks when the ship of the Japan men will return.'
The twittering ceased. For half a minute I heard nothing but the noises of the night. Then there came a morse-like succession of strident chirrups, followed by a dozen phrases of something like birdsong that faded gradually back into the clamour of wind and sea.
'The Ancestor has spoken,' muttered the witch; 'count twenty-three days from tonight, and the ship will arrive.' That ended the session.
'Well – so much for the whistling ghosts and their news!' I said to myself outside. 'A mere trick of ventriloquism.' Just how she could have whistled and talked at the same time, or thrown a chirrup with her mouth shut, I couldn't imagine; and I was puzzled to think why she should have said the ship would come when I said it wouldn't. I decided she had been caught in my little trap 'perhaps I was wrong'. 'What an old hoax – she and her precious Ancestor!' I thought, clinging to the hoax idea rather desperately as I groped my way home through the screaming darkness of the bush.page 222
But the fact is, Tabanea was dead, and he had died in the evening, and the cause of his death was a blow from above him – an embolism, the doctor called it. He was found lying in his dwelling-house at just about the time I went on board the ketch at Tarawa. The ketch lay anchored eleven miles down-lagoon from his village. Obviously, the crew could have heard the news before we left next morning. But, knowing how fond I was of him, they wouldn't – they couldn't conceivably – have kept the thing to themselves on our southward run, had they heard it. It was the very first news they rushed to tell me when they came back to pick me up.
Also, the Japanese ship did return. The prediction was a little out in point of time; she arrived on the twenty-second day not the twenty-third. She came to pick up two copra-lighters which she had left at Arorae.