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A Pattern of Islands

The Prisoner

The Prisoner

We had managed to get a message through to Tarawa in early March, 1919, that Olivia expected another baby in August. Word came back in May that the Senior Medical Officer and Nurse Armstrong, a recent addition to his staff, would be arriving in early July to do a thorough health-survey of Beru while awaiting our family event.

I remember well how pleased we were at the idea of having a doctor at hand for a whole month or even longer. It was not that either of us was ever particularly anxious about falling ill. The post-war spate of pseudo-medical journalism that was to succeed in creating so many recondite diseases for nervous minds to dwell upon had not yet afflicted us. In our comfortable ignorance, we recked not at all of psychoses, and still expected castor-oil, bread poultices, iodine, and aspirin to cure most ailments. They usually did, too. Olivia had a score of questions to ask about the cases she had contrived, as usual, to collect from the villages for treatment in our back premises. Also, I personally wanted advice about Obadaia, a difficult prisoner in the men's page 250gaol, who was doing sentence of a year for a rather serious assault.

The average Gilbertese prisoner of those days – msensible man - seldom took his incarceration as a great hardship. A few weeks or months in the lock-up meant nothing locally in terms of social stigma. Why should a man be penalized for paying on the nail for his mistakes? was the reasonable public view; and also, what the Government called hard labour was a glorious joke. No government that prized its reputation for humanity could, in fact, possibly dare to load any prisoner with the merciless stint of daily work a free man's family demanded of him in his village. So, a fellow could always count on a nice rest in gaol, and recalcitrants were very rare indeed. But Obadaia was one of the few.

He was a craggy Hercules of a man, much taller and more negroid than most of his race, outstandingly intelligent, a well-known wrestler, and immensely fit-looking. He had stabbed another villager through the arm and brought him very near bleeding to death for paying undue attention to his wife. The girl, a good deal younger than himself, was innocent of offence and lived quietly with his mother while he was serving his sentence. But mortal jealousy gnawed him. He was sullenly idle. I had only once seen him snap out of it. That was when we were installing our new kitchen stove and he worked along with the cook under Olivia's direction. For two days he was all smiles and did everything at the double. But when he went back to ordinary prison routines again, he returned to his black brooding and began to sham sick. At least, I thought he was shamming; he could never manage to look ill, or run a pulse or a temperature; but he said he had frightful pains inside him, and I wasn't a doctor, and in the end the daily repetition of his tale began to make me anxious. The solution of his problem and mine got itself strangely tangled with the birth of June Angela, our last child.

Olivia kept very well until the last week of June. Nothing had happened before the birth of the other three children to make us expect trouble this time. The fair-weather season was at its best; chills were almost impossible to catch; there were no influenza page 251colds in the villages. What did hit her I cannot say, but she came back from a sunset walk one day saying she was giddy and thought she had a bit of a temperature. The thermometer said rather more than a bit over 104 degrees.

Both of us guessed that if the fever stayed up there for long there might be a premature birth. Maybe we could have prevented that from happening, had we known how; but we didn't know, and aspirin failed to bring the temperature down. All we could think of doing towards midnight was to get a few things ready at once against any event. Olivia said there was no need to pull long faces about it, anyhow; I myself had been a seven months' child; my mother had told her so: 'And just look at you now!' she ended. 'As merry as an undertaker!' Thus encouraged, I went out to prepare for the worst.

The main thing was to sterilize everything likely to be used, including gallons and gallons of water. It was the water that brought Obadaia into the picture, because I had to organize watches of prisoners in the kitchen to keep heaps of it continually on the boil. I admit that the use of His Majesty's guests for domestic purposes was strictly forbidden, but I did not happen to be thinking much of rules and regulations at the time. The prisoners themselves – there were nine of them, all in for mere peccadillos except Obadaia – were quick to respond when I woke them up in the gaol and explained the situation. Obadaia took the lead at once: 'Men-o-o!' he called, 'we are asked to save Missis and her baby! We prisoners! We bad men! How wonderful is this thing we are given to do! Let us make a plan now.' And there, crowding around a hurricane lamp in the big, dark prison-house, they eagerly resolved themselves into an organizing committee. It was arranged that they should work in four-hour watches of three men each, the first to go on duty at once, headed by Obadaia.

I left the midnight watch at work in the kitchen. When I returned in ten minutes to see how the fire was going, Obadaia whispered, 'Sir, is Missis asleep?' I told him she was, but burning, and muttering, and very restless. He returned back to the stove without comment, and I left again, for there was a big job of reading to get through. I had to study as quickly as I could page 252everything Playfair had written of the way babies were normally born. All my little experience in the villages so far had been with abnormal presentations. I dared not think of those. Time was too short, in any case, to read of every morbid possibility. It came back to me then how, at Cambridge, one had feverishly mugged up spot subjects just before an examination. This seemed rather like that, save for one thing – the cost of a mistake.

As I settled to my reading in the lounge, Olivia's fevered mutterings came to me brokenly across the hissing, clicking whisper of the trade wind through the palms outside. In the night, when the cheerful rumours of life going forward are stilled, anxious ears are not easily stopped to noises that come so lonely out of the dark. But, one by one, Playfair began to answer the frightened questions of my ignorance. He wrote in a way a layman could understand. His simplicity captured and held me absorbed for four hours, and drove spearheads of confidence through the legion of my fears. He engaged me so wholly, I noticed no change in the night's voices until I laid the book aside. The wind still hissed and clicked in the palms, but Olivia muttered no more. She seemed to be humming instead, on a deep, quiet note. It was strange, but there was such contentment in the sound, it did not alarm me; it held some restful quality of sleep itself. I went into her room.

But it was not Olivia who hummed. Though the fever still burned in her, she lay silent in an untroubled sleep. The sound seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Wherever I groped it was around my ears, neither nearer nor farther, like a vibrant mist hung on the darkness. It was not until I brought in the lamp that I found Obadaia sitting on the step of the verandah doorway. He had been there for three hours, he said. His heart had been heavy when I told him Missis was not sleeping well, and he thought I would not mind if he came and sang to her the way his grandmother had taught him. There were no special words to his song, only a trick of making what he called a ghost-voice that floated over sick people and gave them dreamless sleep. Olivia had reacted to it very quickly, and had not stirred since. He could guarantee her sleeping on without page 253evil dreams until daylight, he said, if I would let him go on.

I thanked him for what he had done, but he had lain twisted with one of his pains only that morning; if it had been genuine, he ought to go and get some more sleep now, I told him. His stern face was lit with a sudden smile: 'Listen!' he answered, 'how the trees are crying in the wind! This morning an ill wind blew through my heart and it also cried …' He broke off, looking me in the eyes, and I left it at that, more touched by the beautiful discretion of his phrase than shocked at the confession of malingering. So he sat on in the dark crooning his strange, wordless lullaby while the kitchen watch was changed, and I pored once again over the passages I had marked in Playfair (Volume I, Normal Presentations), and Olivia slept her dreamless sleep till break of day.

She herself, on waking, volunteered a word about how she had slept: 'It was queer. I kept on having nightmares and waking up mumbling and grumbling half the night. Then I remember thinking I was wide awake and hearing a kind of quiet humming sound all round me, and everything seemed marvellous. I suppose that was a dream too, but I didn't have another after that. I still feel wonderful, as if nothing could possibly go wrong.'

It seemed best not to tell her yet of Obadaia. Her temperature was only a few points down, and I thought she might have further need of his help.

The kitchen watch went on, but I sent Obadaia off to get some food and sleep. He said he wanted nothing but a drink of tea, and begged leave to lie under the trees near the house, if the law allowed it. The law did nothing of the kind, but I did, on condition that he would stay off shift until nightfall and eat something solid at midday. I saw nothing more of him until that night, when he returned to duty in the kitchen.

I doubt if many women in the civilized world have ever made a trial trip into self-anaesthesia as Olivia did. A Dr Woinarski of Melbourne (bless his memory) had told me how it worked when we travelled together from Ocean Island to Australia. You begin by putting an ordinary glass tumbler into your patient's hand, as if she were going to drink, and tying it in that position with a bandage. Then you take six strips of thick blotting-paper an inch page 254broad by six long, soak them in chloroform, pop them into the glass, and cover them over with a very loosely packed wad of cotton wool. This last lets the fumes through and at the same time prevents contact with the burning liquid. Your patient holds the glass close to mouth and nose, and breathes in the fumes for as long as she can keep her hand up. When unconsciousness comes, the weighted hand falls away and she breathes nothing but fresh air. If she comes to, she lifts the glass again, and the same thing is repeated.

There were several bottles of chloroform in stock at the medical visiting station. I asked the Native Dresser to bring one along and time me while I tried the idea out on myself first of all. He reported that my tumbler-hand fell in about half a minute, and that I stayed under for about forty seconds. After that, as Olivia agreed, the important thing was for her personally to get the hang of it; which she did with distinction and much good cheer, though her temperature was over 104 degrees again, towards seven o'clock of the second day. 'This will make it all as easy as falling off a log,' she remarked when it was over: 'I think I'll have another sleep before the great event. It won't be long now.' If, from that time I felt any fortitude, it was only because hers sufficed for both of us.

She slept almost on the moment, but not restfully until Obadaia came to magic her once more. I watched the effect this time. She had lain twitching and flinging on her back for half an hour before I called him. Three or four minutes after he began, she turned on her side and seemed to be engulfed at once in peace. She stayed so until near eleven o'clock when Obadaia got up from the doorstep. 'I think it will not be long now,' he whispered. 'It is expedient to make all things ready,' and went back to the kitchen. I followed mechanically. His prediction had been so much the same as Olivia's, it did not strike me to wonder how he had guessed until I was halfway through the final preparations. 'The thought came into my heart as I sang,' he answered. Somehow I was sure that that clinched the matter, and so indeed it fell out.

I carried a sterilized tray of sterilized things in sterilized hands out of the kitchen and stood it on a sterilized cloth in the room. page 255Child never had a more completely aseptic welcome into this bacillary world than June Angela received. She arrived four hours later, an hour before sun-up, lobster-pink, a million years old, almost without finger-nails, and weighing just over three pounds. There were no complications.

'Well, that's that,' Olivia murmured, as I handed the baby over to Faasolo, Joan's Ellice Island nursemaid: 'Queer job for a District Officer, I must say!'

Kind Mrs Eastman and Miss Simmons arrived from the London Mission station up-lagoon soon after and took charge of her. I slept for the next twelve hours.

Mother and child were doing well when I came out of it. 'I've been thinking,' Olivia said: "This is really rather lucky. I'll be up and about again by the time Doctor arrives. Now, what I'm going to tell him is … ' It was all about her ailing expectant mothers.

For the next three weeks there was nothing but sunshine from Obadaia. We were building a sea-wall of coral blocks at the time, which made heavier chores than usual for the prisoners, but he did the work of any other four of them together, laughing and splashing while he heaved great foundation blocks around like a boy-giant happy with his playthings. Iuta, the Magistrate, was concerned about the uproarious noise he made; he felt that such a flow of gaiety was indecent in a prisoner. I thought myself it was simply Obadaia's way of showing regret for past malingering. Iuta said perhaps-yes, but there was something else behind it, he was sure. He turned out to be right, though I never told him how. The whole thing was too complicated for explanation on the official plane.

There was that malingering, to begin with. I went out to the sea-wall workers one day to say something to Obadaia. He was not among them. They said he had gone to lie down in a clump of salt-bush not far off, being tired. I found him sitting alone there clasping his stomach and gasping.

When a man wants to swing the lead, he does not go off and hide himself to do so. I had him carried to the house.

The doctor, who arrived the following week, found he had page 256advanced chronic appendix trouble and operated at once. He never had been shamming. The only lie he had ever told me, I thought shamefacedly, was when he had confessed himself a malingerer, so that I might let him go on crooning to Olivia.

His young wife was there holding his hand when I went to see him in hospital. I told her in front of him how much he had helped Olivia, and how we had all misjudged him before that. But instead of smiling she hung her head and whispered, 'Ti maama (We are ashamed),' and again after a long silence, but looking at Obadaia this time, Ti maama.'

'Ti maama,' he whispered back at her, 'but I cannot tell the Man of Matang.'

'You must tell him,' she insisted: 'If you do not, I will.'

'Still your heart, woman,' he pleaded, 'and I will tell Missis when I am no longer sick.'

'You will tell him now, because of your love and honour for Missis.'

He yielded to that. Clinging tight to her hand, he began hesitantly but gathered strength as his tale went on: 'Sir, you remember? I slept under the trees at daybreak of the second day, after I had sung to Missis. And when it was noon, I awoke, and all were gathered in their houses to eat. A thought came to me then, an evil thought. I said in my heart, "Perhaps that woman my wife is not faithful to me, now that I am shut up in the calaboose." I said again, "I will go and search in her eyes, and if I see lies there, I will kill her." So I went, and no man saw me go. I came up to the house of my mother from among the trees. None saw me arrive in the village, for all men were sleeping after the noon-day meal. And I went in …'

He broke off, looking at his wife: 'It is enough, woman. I have told him of my sin against the law.'

'It is not enough,' she said inexorably, 'for those other things also are forbidden to prisoners, and I sinned with you in doing them.'

He sighed heavily and looked at me again: 'I went in. I woke my mother. I said to her, "Let down the screens of the house." When she had done that, I said, "Leave me alone with my wife." She left us alone. I looked into this woman's eyes, and I knew page 257there were no lies in them. I stayed with her, and we lay until the evening. The tale is done.'

'The tale is not done, Man of Matang,' she said, staring at the floor.

He groaned: 'Is it not enough? Will you have me locked in the calaboose for ever?'

'Peace,' she murmured, 'I also shall be locked up, for I sinned with you.'

'So I returned when it was dark,' he went on drearily, 'and sang to Missis again. When that was done, I lied to the policeman; I told him that the Man of Matang had ordered me to sleep near at hand on the side verandah. He answered, "Aia!" I went to the side verandah. And when everyone was waiting for news of Missis, I crept away. I went back to my wife, and we lay again until the morning …'

'I have greatly sinned,' he added after a long pause. 'Yet since that time I have had no more evil thoughts, and I have worked with a glad heart, because I know this woman is true to me.'

Naturally, my thought ran first to the moral of his disastrous story for the moral-minded: this seemed to be that a District Officer should never, never accept personal favours from prisoners. It subverts all discipline. What interested me most at the moment, however, was the moral courage of Obadaia and his wife and its inspiration: 'Tell me your thought,' I said to the young woman; 'Did he sin most against the Government, or against me, or against Missis?'

'If he had sinned only against the Government and you,' she assured me solemnly, 'it would have been a thing for secret laughter between us …' She made it admirably plain; to hell with the law and its minions; his sin had been a personal sin against Olivia – using her illness as a stalking-horse for prison-breaking and illicit love-making with herself.

'And how many months in prison do you expect to get for your part in the crime?' I asked her.

'I thought perhaps a year, for I said to him, "Come back to me tonight, or I shall die," and he came back, and I was not ashamed until he left me alone again.' She wept.

The abundantly clear point in all this welter of facts and page 258motions was that, but for my being the husband of the object of their devotion, I should never have been burdened with their confession. My only obligation in the circumstances was to pass it on to Olivia, which I did. She, in turn, very properly decided that she had no right to impart it to the District Officer. She therefore abstained from mentioning the subject in my office. In any case, we both agreed, it was largely June Angela's fault for catching everyone on the wrong foot as she did. So the thing never reached the official plane. As for Obadaia, what with his good-conduct marks and all, his sentence ran out while he was still in hospital. Or, rather, Olivia saw to it that he was kept in hospital until his sentence ran out.