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A Pattern of Islands

Father Choblet

page 237

Father Choblet

Of the five islands officially called the Southern Gilberts, Tamana and Arorae, with 2,000 souls between them, were 100 per cent Protestant; Onotoa, with 1,500, nearly 100 per cent; Nukunau, with 1,500 and Beru, with 2,400,80 per cent each; and William Edward Goward, the local head of the London Missionary Society had been, politically speaking, their dictator for twenty-odd years up to 1918. I never came to know him well, as he retired just before we settled at Beru; but he remained with us in the spirit; the impress of his tremendous personality had moulded every village teacher of his making to his own unbending shape, and I had much to do with the formidable politicoreligious organization he left behind him.

At nearly sixty, he was a stocky, pink-faced, white-haired figure – rather like Lloyd George, I thought, but Olivia said more like Bismarck – in radiantly laundered ducks, flaming with energy, stubborn as a mule, puritanical as a Pym, arrogant as a cardinal. His village visitations at Beru were royal progresses. Flocks of beefy, white-skirted native pastors, teachers and deacons followed in his train. His parishioners lined the village streets and bowed as he passed. His word was, quite literally, law: he said pagan shrines must be destroyed, and they were destroyed; he said that Gilbertese women must wear drawers, and drawers for women it was; he told the people they must choose only deacons of the Protestant church as village kaubure, and only Protestant deacons were chosen; he told the deacon-kaubure how to vote in cases before the Native Courts, and they voted no other way – or were sacked by the Magistrates, at his order, if they did.

To be honest, Government lassitude was responsible for most of this. The administration of the Southern Gilberts had always been neglected, for the very reason that Mr Goward's masterful hand rested so inflexibly upon them. From that angle, the Empire owes much to him; he was, in his own way, the major force for peace and discipline there for a great many years. If, in the course of his good works, which were legion, he managed to establish government by the elect in lieu of government by the elected, it was mainly because officialdom abandoned him too page 238much to his own devices. It certainly was never the fault of the London Missionary Society as a body. His successors in office helped me much, from behind their own scenes, in getting the Native Courts to operate without fear or favour of denominational parties. It must have been extremely difficult for them. They had to deal with a staff of Samoan and Gilbertese pastors fashioned by the old chief in the formidable likeness of himself. To these ironsides, the liberalism of the new regime could have seemed nothing short of blasphemy, and I remember with gratitude the courageous firmness of the leaders who taught them otherwise.

One of the first things I had to do was to secure a reasonable representation of Roman Catholic opinion in the Native Courts. It was prima facie bad in principle, I suppose, to identify the representation of the people with denominational religion. But there were no overt non-Christians in the Southern Gilberts to complicate the issue. For the rest, the general run of villagers, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, had few feelings for right or wrong, justice or injustice, outside those dictated and limited by their sectarian prejudices. That was the worst of all the results of the Government's laissez faire policy; it affected the administration of the law. As the Native Courts sat in judgement on members of both the warring sects, clearly the only thing to do – and quickly – was to give the Roman Catholic minority at least some voice in their deliberations.

Eventually, as retirements permitted, we worked up to a ratio of one Roman Catholic kaubure to every three Protestants in the Native Courts of Beru and Nukunau (Koata, the Native Magistrate of Onotoa, had already turned Roman Catholic of his own accord, which was convenient) and the arrangement showed good results. But the early days were not without their troubles on Beru. The very first of the Sacred Heart Mission's flock to be appointed kaubure, whom I shall call Timoteo, rather failed – from my angle, at least – to get the real hang of the thing. A policy of non-sectarian administration was, after all, the great idea. Father Choblet said he saw what I meant, but…

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Timoteo was one of his village teachers, and a very good one too. I haven't the least doubt that the Father, by ways and means known to his cloth, had made very sure that that individual and no other would be freely elected by his parishioners. However, everyone else was doing the same thing on Beru, so why not he? 'Il faut étre toujours réaliste,' as he was always fond of saying when annoyed. The election (or selection) took place when I had been about three months there, just before I left on a tour of the central islands.

When I got back four weeks later, Iuta, the Native Magistrate, a gentle little Protestant, greeted me on the beach with a very long face: 'Alas! I am about to be dismissed from office, for I have deeply sinned,' he said. 'Why, what have you been up to, you old villain?' I asked. I could not imagine a man like him guilty of any crime worse than over-kindness.

He did not brighten up: 'I have suspended Timoteo, and the Father has told me that you will at once dismiss me for that evil act. And he has said also that if you do not dismiss me, he will make the Old Man on Ocean Island dismiss you. And he has said also that if the Old Man of Ocean Island does not dismiss you, he will make the Old Man in Fiji dismiss him. And he has said also that if the Old Man in Fiji will not listen, he will make the King dismiss him, and the Old Man at Ocean Island, and both of us. Therefore it is expedient for you to dismiss me at once, lest worse things happen.'

It appeared that, from the day of my departure, Timoteo had looked upon himself as an officially authorized crusader for his own church. 'The day has now come,' he told the Protestant villagers, 'for the truimph of the one true faith over darkness. Here I stand to prove it, all you heretics.' When they politely ignored that, he began to shout it up and down the village street, mentioning names, articles of faith and the penalties he, as kaubure, would cause to be inflicted upon all unbelievers. But it was only when he made a habit of bawling insults mixed with curious dogma outside the Protestant school that public patience cracked, and even then the report went not to Iuta, but to the Father: 'Relieve us of this madman, we beg you,' it ran, 'for he talks very vilely, and of page 240a religion that we do not wish to know, being Christians.'

Though it was perhaps unhappily worded, it did at least throw the initiative, with extraordinary forbearance, whole into the Father's hands. He, however, read it as a gratuitous insult, and took it to the Native Magistrate, demanding the immediate official vindication of Timoteo. His claim was that Timoteo had done nothing but testify like a good Catholic to the faith that was in him. But Iuta investigated the facts and wisely suspended Timoteo. After further inquiries of my own, I found nothing for it but to ask the Father to put up a less militant candidate for the office.

He said that he didn't want a fresh candidate. Timoteo was the best qualified of his flock to speak out for the Catholic church as a kaubure. Timoteo must be reinstated.

'But Father,' I protested, 'he wasn't appointed to speak out for your church or anyone else's. That's the whole point. The government isn't a proselytizing organization.'

"Mais soyons réalistes au moins! Regard those others. Are they not all deacons of their church, et quelle église, ma foi! And do they not bawl their canticles day and night, to pierce the ears of my poor people?'

'Yes but … Father, they don't demonstrate in official uniform … with official threats … shouting insults outside your school. They do their singing and praying reasonably, in chapel.'

'Insults, you say? Reasonably? O, but the insults and unreason I have supported from that Buddha! C'est à fou-rire … c'est inoui! I implore your justice. I demand the reinstatement of Timoteo.'

'That Buddha' was his engaging name for Mr Go ward. It was true that the news-sheet published by the resolute old gentleman had made outspoken attacks on the Roman way of thinking. But the Sacred Heart's publications had superbly held their own at that kind of thing, and, in any case, the sacred freedom of the press had nothing to do (as far as I could see) with the case of Timoteo.

T simply can't appoint a Roman Catholic kaubure just to give you the pleasure of getting a kick-back at Mr Goward,' I pleaded.

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'But he is a good Catholic … the best in my flock. His influence cannot fail to be good. Regard the principles. I beg you …'

'Yes but … Father we're arguing from different premises. You must look at the facts …'

And so on: facts, premises, principles – we went round and round in that age-old contention between passionate priestliness and bureaucratic beastliness. 'You have lifted me up only to throw me down,' he shouted as he left: 'You have destroyed my prestige. You have trampled upon my church as the Boches trampled on defenceless Belgium.' He confirmed the last phrase in writing, and never would retract it. But he did nominate another man, who turned out excellent.

And he never ceased his loving kindness. A bunch of bananas from his garden (he was a great gardener as well as a great man) arrived with the scorching letter he wrote me. Every one I ate made me feel more like a worm. The reproachful looks of Sister Yves when I went up to call on him two days later shamed me still more. She stood on the beach to meet me: 'The Father regrets not being able to welcome you today, as he is indisposed,' she said, and then, seeing my crestfallen looks, 'He has suffered much, you understand, but perhaps he will be strong enough to see you if you return next week.'

I did return. He was his sanguine, dominant self again by then. 'As a human being with human sentiments,' he opened, leaning forward to hold my hand as he sat, 'I permit myself to say that you have done me a great wrong. As a Christian and a friend-though you are not of my church – I forgive you nevertheless.'

My cantankerousness found that difficult to swallow whole. I asked him if he would also forgive me if I went on thinking I had done him no wrong at all. He leapt to his feet, addressing heaven with upflung arms, 'O juste ciel! How I have prayed for patience to support this monster!' Then, as suddenly as he had arisen, he sat down again, doubled up with laughter, pointing at me. When he came out of it, he took both my hands, speaking very quietly: 'Voyons, let us speak no more of it. Let us be good friends.' I don't think I have ever had an acuter sense of receiving an honour.

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We argued and grew hot many times after that. He tried to dictate to me about divorce and to interfere with the marriage laws. His rudeness when angry was staggering. He used abusive epithets like knuckle-dusters. He enraged me once by saying the Great War had been God's judgement on England because her Kings refused to bow to Rome. Yet his fanaticism was lit by sparks of amazing sanity. One of his dicta was that the disestablishment of his own church in France was the best thing that ever happened to her, because it made her fight for her living. I never met a more intricate, arrogant, humble-minded, lovable mass of impassioned unreason and cold hard commonsense. We quarrelled, but never fell out; he called me a heretical, bureaucratic pragmatist, I called him narrow-minded and interfering; but he was not narrow-minded; always at the end, it was his tempestuous laughter that ended the bout and made us friends again.

I had returned from my tour of the central islands with a slight attack of dysentery, which neglect did not improve. Emetine was not yet being used in the Gilbert Islands (I don't know why); I had lost faith, for myself at least, in the sickening ipecacuanha treatment, and all patience with my proneness to the disease. It seemed to me that the less notice I took of it, the sooner it would pass. But amoeba refuses to be treated like that. By the middle of March I was sulkily on my back again, and feeding on slops. Colitis came along; I got more and more cautious about diet; at the end of April, I was living on two glasses of milk and water a day, very weak, and savagely sorry for myself.

Father Choblet was constant in his visits. I remember his talking to me much at that time of how, in seven or eight years from then, he hoped to return to his beloved France again. He always explained with care that he had no wish to stay there long; Beru remained always his road to Heaven and he wanted to come back to die; but he felt that Providence might not grudge him a short visit to his family after, say, thirty-five years of exile. It was when his agonized human loves spoke to me so piteously page 243through the iron disciplines of his dedication that I knew the real, the towering, stature of the man concealed within the cassock, and saw for the first time blindingly how little the trappings of the churches and the dogmas they stand for must matter to Heaven, or should matter to humanity, beside the simple worth of the men they hide and divide. When I had been ill for two and a half months, I said to him out of the gladness of my revelation, 'You know, Father, I don't think religion necessarily embellishes a man; it's always the man who embellishes his religion.' But that started a furious argument, which he ended by saying I was too sick to think straight. In any case, I was a heretic and therefore not worth listening to. 'And as for the sickness,' he finished, 'well, you are not a member of my congregation, but you are my friend … I wish to speak as a friend.'

I knew that opening gambit of his; it meant he was about to tell me something insufferably true about my ego. He did. I leaned back sulkily on my pillows to take the withering blast of it. He began mildly enough by saying that the time had come when I ought to make an effort to eat something. According to his diagnosis, I was starving myself to death instead of fighting back at the disease. But his last words had a sting in them: 'Your mind is sicker than your body,' he told me; 'Despair … that's your trouble … and despair is a mortal sin as well as being cowardly.'

It stabbed the deeper because I had a feeling he was right. Only that morning, I had decided I couldn't last long at the rate the colitis was going. But I mumbled something about being at the end of my patience, and fed to the teeth, and justifiably so, and be damned to everything. That set him really talking Choblet.

'Impatient? Fed to the teeth? Justifiably?' he barked, 'Mais ça me fait rire! C'est tordant, ça! Ha-ha! Regard how I mock you, and take another look at yourself. There is Providence – Divine Providence – waiting at your elbow with a lagoon full of fish – kind foods – strengthening foods – and what do you do? You talk to me of justification when you haven't even the courage to use divine help. Impatient… Justified, are you? Well, I have some page 244better words. Pusillanimous, that's what you are … and a prig … a pusillanimous prig!'

There was much more of it, but that is the gist of what he shouted as his tiny figure in its white soutane hurled itself hopping and gesticulating around the room. He only stood still to laugh at my furious retort. 'You can treat me to bad names if you like: you are a privileged invalid. But you know I am right. That is why you swear so,' he smiled when I dried up. He left me with the quiet advice that I should begin my cure by eating a little boiled fish with more confidence in the mercy of Providence and less fear of stomach aches.

The contempt in that gorgeous phrase 'pusillanimous prig' shamed me into trying. It hurt at first, but Nature (or, if you like, Providence), given a fair chance, began to fight on my side. I was on my feet in a fortnight. Father Choblet's whip-lash truths about my spirit, in effect, saved my body.

A month later, it was his turn to fall ill. I knew nothing about it until a laconic note from Sister Yves came like a bolt from across the blue lagoon. He might have ptomaine poisoning or appendicitis she thought. He was in terrible pain. He could not go on much longer without help. He himself believed the end was very near. Could I possibly come to him?

The only medicines left in my depleted chest were half a bottle of castor-oil and five morphine hydrochloride tablets of a strength I have forgotten. There was a hypodermic syringe too, with a rusty needle. I took the lot. He was doubled up and groaning when I got there. His murky box of a room was stifling hot. A solid mass of villagers swarmed around his bed, robbing him of air. I told them impatiently to give breathing space. He raised himself a little, to whisper, 'Ah, be gentle with them,' and fell back again. He had not slept for three nights and days, they told me. His temperature was soaring, his pulse racing and feeble; he was semi-delirious. He called it appendicitis himself. Maybe it was; I don't know. But I do know that the pain that racked his body meant almost nothing to him. One thought page 245alone obsessed and ravaged his mind. There was no brother-priest at hand to bring him the Last Sacrament.

He babbled his tortured thoughts to me between paroxysms. He had risked his life in raging seas three years before to save Father Franchiteau from that selfsame horror of dying unshriven on Nukunau. He had succeeded miraculously … but now … 'I was too proud of my success,' he told me, 'I was too proud. This is my punishment. I die alone, without Viaticum.' His fevered thought turned to the added centuries of purgatory it might cost him; 'I shall not see France from purgatory,' he muttered: 'Hélas! mea maxima culpa!' It was not despair but a humility beyond belief, which accepted the imagined savagery of his God as justice perfected.

It did not occur to me that I could save his life. My only hope was to ease his passing. I knew the morphine could do that, but he would have refused it as a mere anodyne. So I lied to him. I told him the injection was the very latest thing for abscess of the appendix. The effect was electric. It was like pressing a button and starting a dynamo. Hope leapt from him as instantaneous as a spark. As I pushed in the blunt needle he began to talk of God's infinite mercy in bringing him low, so that he might see his sin, and then sending this drug to save him.

I wanted him to die thinking like that of the ultimate decencies, not the man-made horrors of his God. Nothing else seemed to matter. So I embroidered the tale with more lies. I was not, and am not now, ashamed of any of them, because they did confirm him in the belief that Providence was back at his elbow. I had proof of it. Though my first timid dose of the drug-a single tiny tabloid – brought him little relief from pain, he lay there for an hour gasping gratitude to Heaven and poking fun at my glum face. His joke was that, as an instrument of Providence, I ought to look a lot happier. Confidence swept out of him like a rushing wind; it raced alive through the gloomy little room and infected the villagers still crowded at the doorway: 'The Father will live,' they shouted, 'he will live!' and rushed out to tell their friends – all save one, who ran in to hold my hands. He looked weeping into my eyes for a moment and went out without speaking. It was the poor Timoteo I had had to sack page 246three months before. But emotions made no certainty for me. I could not share the faith and hope that radiated from the bed.

I had to make a choice in the next few minutes. Should I spend the last few tabloids of morphine in one big, comforting dose or eke them out in two small ones? A single hundredth of a grain had barely eased him; one of his most urgent needs was sleep; I did not think that two would put him under. I gave him all the rest. Perhaps I hoped he might die sleeping; I was so certain he could not live. As he floated serenely into unconsciousness, I slid two tablespoons of castor oil into him. I couldn't conceive it would help much, but it couldn't do him any harm, I thought.

He woke in six hours with the pains clutching at him again. He asked, writhing, if it was time for another injection. I had nothing for his help now save more lies. It struck me of a sudden that the pure power of his belief might put him to sleep again, if I could give it something to cling to. I had heard of such miracles; it seemed worth trying. I said, 'Father, I'm going to double the dose this time,' and made a big show of putting tabloids in the syringe and filling up with boiled water to melt them. 'I'll have to reduce again next shot,' I told him as I injected pure water into his arm: 'Can't afford to risk an overdose.'

And it worked, or, rather, his faith did. His body relaxed; he was asleep within two minutes, and remained so for another three hours, until the castor oil took charge. The pains were less after that, but still heavy. I injected more water, and once more he plunged into sleep like a small boy. The temperature left him and his pulse rallied while he slept. I told him when he woke that he would have to bear the rest of his aches unaided for twenty-four hours, as I dare not give him another dose earlier. 'But I have no more than a little tenderness left,' he said: 'Let me have a drink of water, and I will sleep … I am still very sleepy.' Even the tenderness was gone by the time he woke again.

So he lived to face the rest of his strange destiny. Maybe there was nothing so wonderful about his cure, after all. His temperature might have come from a chill, his pains from some kind of colic, for all I know. In that case, the castor oil was all he needed to put him right, with perhaps a spice of heretical companion-page 247ship to keep his pecker up. But he would naturally have none of that. He said it was stupid and wicked quibbling. The whole thing was so clear to him: I had need of him with his truths (plus boiled fish) in my extremity; he had needed me with my lies (plus castor oil) in his; ergo, and inevitably, Providence had sent each to the other properly equipped at the proper moment. The proper moment was when faith was most ready to work. I said, 'What about the faith of an agnostic?' and that led to some of the finest linguistics I ever heard him use. He won the argument by pointing out that I wasn't an agnostic but a heretic Christian, anyhow, which I was proud to accept.

The story leaps forward eight or nine years (I forget exactly how many) for the sequel. I was Resident Commissioner when his joyful letter came to tell me that, at long last, he was going back to France, and for a whole year. He had been thirty-six years without a holiday. The way leave had come to him was of itself providential, he said. He had not liked to ask for it, as there was always so much work for everyone, but he had not been very well of late, and the Bishop had ordered him out; so now he could dwell without contumacy on the thought of seeing his folk before he died. He would be coming to Ocean Island by the next opportunity, to wait for a passage to Australia.

He arrived three months later, shrunk to almost nothing in his soutane, and leaden-skinned, as if the blood in him had changed to some grey liquid. Only his face seemed not to have shrunk, but its features were strangely altered. The fine-bridged nose had broadened between the eyes; the ears and the high arches of the brows were somehow thickened. They thought in the group that he had some kind of anaemia.

But what did it matter what he had, he smiled. The good doctors of France would soon put him right; he would see his people for a blessed year; there would be the good peasant food of La Vendée; he would return roaring like a lion for more work, and he didn't know how many more arguments with me and my bureaucracy. He left me at the front steps laughing, 'Trente-six page 248ans! Bon Dieu! Mais tiens … bon Dieu … it was well said, that! Bon Dieu … Bonté Supreme!'

But it did matter what he had. Of all the sicknesses that possibly might have forbidden his twelve thousand mile way home, he had the most dreadful – leprosy. I did not see him for a week after the doctor's heart-breaking verdict. He wanted to be alone. From things he said later, I humbly guessed at the bitter struggle he had had with the fury of despair. But he came out of it superhumanly serene. 'I clung too much to the happiness I vowed to renounce,' he told me: 'That was a sin. I should have begged Monseigneur to let me stay. There is work for me to do among the lepers. God has been merciful in allowing me to redeem my sin.' No lies this time had helped him back to his faith in the goodness of Providence.

We built a two-roomed house for him, at his own request, in the asylum where our forty or fifty lepers lived. We would have put him elsewhere had he wished, but he wanted to be with the others. The settlement was a new one, laid out as much like a village as possible, in a cheerful spot not too far from Tarawa hospital. One or two cases had begun to respond to gynocardate injections, but results were so rare, known failures so many. Hopelessness deepened by the awful lassitude of the disease itself was our constant enemy. It robbed even the vivid, fighting Gilbertese of their will to live. They withered in their new home as they had withered in the old one, hoping for a quick end. They did nothing but sit and wait. There was never a smile in that camp of the walking dead. I feared much for the Father.

But I need not have feared. I was able to visit him at Tarawa five or six months after he had settled in. The first thing I noticed was a beautiful new order in the settlement. No coconut-leaves littered the ground between houses as before; crinum lilies grew in neatly kerbed borders along the paths. The place had the air of a village proud of itself. There was industry everywhere; I saw men making nets, women plaiting mats. People chatted from house to house as they worked. And there was laughter. They called cheerful greetings to me, where once they had sat as mute as the doomed. The asylum had become a real refuge, alive and glad of life.

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'Here, what have you been doing with my lepers?' I said to the Father when I sat in his house.

'Ah, you have noticed? But did you not know? I am the new District Officer, Leper Asylum. And, ma foi, my people listen to my advice better than to any bureaucrat's,' he laughed.

That was beyond all argument. I asked him how he had got them going.

'I began by doing my duty as a priest. The rest followed,' was his reply; 'When the soul is awakened, life is worth living. But you have to be a good Catholic to understand that, cher hérétique!'

I sidestepped that one by asking him how he was. He said the doctor reported progress already, but added, 'mais vous savez, je ne me tracasse plus de tout ça. Je suis bien content de laparoisse que m'a donnée le Bon Dieu.' He was absorbed in his job. Providence had turned up trumps for him again.