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A Pattern of Islands

The Bottle-washer

page 29

The Bottle-washer

The comfortable course of my education as a Bottle-washer for bottle-washers was very early interrupted by tragedy. Only three weeks after our arrival at Ocean Island poor kindly Darbishire, the clerk in charge of the Resident Commissioner's office, died of dysentery, and I had to act in his stead until we left Ocean Island for the Gilbert group nearly two years later. A fortnight after Darbishire's death the accountant had to go on sick leave. According to him, the anxiety of having me near his books had a lot to do with his condition. Nevertheless, the Old Man made me responsible for the next six months, jointly with Methven, for the local book-keeping and customs work. The chaos we made together of the book-keeping, and the names we called each other in the process, cemented the warmest of friendships between us.

The combination of office chores, attendance at magistrate's sessions with the Old Man, and getting ready for my examinations in law and language made a fairly hard day's work as a rule, but not quite as hard as it might sound to a modern ear. There was no wireless station yet on Ocean Island. Our overlord, the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, was 1,200 miles away in Fiji – a month's distance by mail via Sydney. Besides our business, he had the affairs of the British Solomon Islands, the British New Hebrides and the native kingdom of Tonga to attend to, and he was always busy, too, with his other job as Governor of Fiji. What with one thing and another, he did not overload us with questions of detail, and I was not usually so burdened with clerical duties in that ramshackle office squatting on the hillside that I could not squeeze in a little field work.

Field work meant for me, among other things, picking up what I could of building methods. District Officers had to page 30design and put up a number of things like houses and boat harbours for themselves in those days, and the Old Man's idea was to get Methven to educate me a little in such matters before I began to run away with Empire-building on a grand scale. It was a very good idea, and I liked it, if only because I nursed a notion that I had a real flair for public works. But it was anxious going for Methven, and it occasionally cost the taxpayers a lot of money. The termination of my course of study came rather suddenly in connexion with a matter of water-supply.

Water was a problem on Ocean Island, as everywhere else in that droughty Group, and Methven was doing his best to cope with it. New 20,000-gallon storage tanks of concrete were being laid down all over the Government station as fast as they could be built. One of the first out-door jobs I had to learn was how to blast twenty-foot pits for them in the rocky earth. The actual work was not difficult. You got someone to drill holes in several rocks; you pushed sticks of gelignite, with detonators and fuses attached, into the holes; then you tamped them in, lit the fuses and ran for your life.

I chose the Residency backyard for my first independent blasting operation. A cistern had been ordered for it, and I thought it would be a nice surprise for everyone to find a beautiful, big hole all ready for the concrete work. My only real mistakes were that I chose a Saturday afternoon, warned nobody, put down 100 per cent too many charges, and used 100 per cent too much gelignite in each of them. The initial result was an aggregate explosion of volcanic force. The surface of the backyard rose bodily into the air, to overhang the Residency in the form of a black cloud. Boulders of gigantic size rained from the cloud and fell crashing through the roof into the dining-room. The Resident Commissioner and his lady were taking their siesta at the time. They addressed me at once and both at once from the back verandah, in their underclothes. But they did not continue long, for this was not the end. One of the fuses had burned slower than the rest. A second explosion – trifling compared with the first yet still a thunder-blast – roared out. My chief and his partner fled to cover, and so did I, in the opposite direction.

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The next morning, after an interview which need not be recorded, my Chief addressed the following minute to Methven -

O/C Police and Prisons,

Ocean Island

Please note that I have today prayed Mr Cadet Grimble, in the interests of public safety, to abstain from indulgence in public works of any kind. Mr Grimble has kindly assented to my petition. You may accordingly regard his course of education in this direction as now concluded. As to his training in other outside duties, please be good enough to see that his genius is henceforward kept exclusively engaged in the boarding of ships under your most rigorous personal supervision.


Methven considered this document to be so educative in itself that he invited me to take a copy of the text before returning it to the Old Man, endorsed —

Resident Commissioner

Noted for immediate action. Thank you, Sir, sincerely.


A mile inland from the Residency, due north through the deep forest of calophyllum trees on the island's crest, was Buakonikai, a village of four hundred souls. The other seven hundred Baanabans were distributed between Tabwewa, Tabiang and Uma, which stood sheltered among coconut-palms along the rocky south-west coast. Tabwewa and Tabiang were perched on the steep hillside above small, beached coves, but Uma on the southern promontory of the island (we called it Solomon's Point) was different. Its brown lodges went right down to the sea-shore, for the point had collected a big flat of sand from the tide-rips that scoured Home Bay, and space was there for men to dwell near their canoe sheds.

Except that there was no lagoon, Uma nestling so snug by the waterside was very much like a hundred other villages I was to see in the Gilbert Islands later, and it will do well enough for all. page 32Above the beach, just within the shade of the seaward-leaning palms, were the cook-houses and canoe sheds, mere thatches raised on stilts, the cool and quiet resorts dear to the aged. If ever you wanted an old man to talk to, you would always find one dreaming the drowsy hours away where his beloved canoe lay housed. If it was an old lady you sought, you would discover her, as like as not, in the screened cook-house, guarding the earth-oven of her household from the wicked spells of enemy sorcerers.

Deeper among the trees, the mwenga, or dwellings, stood ranged with careful art on both sides of a broad main street that followed the shoreline, the deep eaves of their thatches falling to within a boy's height of the ground. Their floors of coconutleaf midribs laid across joists were raised like decks two or three feet clear of the soil, to let the cool air breathe below them. There were no walls to shut out the sane winds of heaven, only screens of plaited leaf hung within the eaves, ready to lower against prying eyes or stormy weather. Two trees supplied all the material needed for building these airy lodges; thatch, rafters, joists, and corner-posts came from the pandanus; the coconut-palm gave leaves for the screens and fibre for string to lash the parts together, as well as midribs for the decking. There were no nails, no dowel-pins. Where the main timbers crossed or were spliced, the barred and chequered patterns of the lashings were the pride of the builders.

The mwenga were set back five yards or so from the roadside, with white-shingled spaces before them. Palms stood in the wide intervals between home and home, their crests spreading arches of latticed gold and green above the silver-brown thatches. There was dappled shadow and sunlight below. The deep green of bread-fruit trees and the flaming vermilion of poinsiana made an avenue down the roadway. Everywhere there were crinum lilies at your feet, that grew like tiger-lilies, but waxen white, in orderly shingled borders and clustered in starry clumps up against the tree-trunks. Crimson of hibiscus and scarlet-gold of Barbados pride burned insolent and tender round the lodges. The weft of frangipani perfume stealing across a warp of sea-scents from the reef made a net of fragrances, page 33languid and sharp together, that enmeshed the life of the village day and night.

Walking down the bright avenue, the white man had no need to pry if he wanted to see the villagers at home. The people did not use their screens to shut out friendly eyes or conversation. Men back from fishing or cultivation loved to loll at ease on ther floors, smoking and bandying talk from house to house. Women and girls sat brushing their hair, braiding flower-chains, changing garments, bathing children, plaiting mats, chattering all the time, but alive to the littlest thing that passed in the village street. If you wanted a silent and reflective stroll, you avoided a village, for it was almost beyond human power to resist the temptation of their charming and curious gossip. Everything was news for the villagers, especially the women.

You might contrive to avoid sitting or standing talk, but there was always that bare minimum of conversation you must give to everyone who greeted you. The form of exchange never varied:

  • Villager: 'Sir, thou shalt be blest. Whence comest thou?'
  • Self: 'Sir (or Woman), thou shalt be blest. I come from the south.'
  • Villager: 'Aia! And whither goest thou?'
  • Self: 'I go northwards.'
  • Villager: 'Aia! And what to do in the north?'
  • Self: 'Just to walk.'
  • Villager: 'Ai-i-ia! We shall meet again.'
  • Self: 'We shall meet again.'
  • Villager: 'So good-bye.'
  • Self: 'Good-bye.'

And if you met the same person again on your way back, which was most probable at the idle hour of the sundown stroll:

  • Villager: 'Sir, thou shalt be blest. Art thou back?'
  • Self: 'Sir, thou shalt be blest. I am back.'
  • Villager: 'And whither now?'
  • Self: 'I go to my house.'
  • Villager: 'To do what in thy house?'
  • Self: 'Just to sit down.'
  • Villager: 'Ai-i-ia! We shall meet again.'page 34
  • Self: 'We shall meet again.'
  • Villager: 'So good-bye.'
  • Self: 'Good-bye.'

I ventured once in the very early days to tell the Old Man that I found these exchanges a little redundant. He bent his thin dark look on me; 'You probably think, Grimble, that you're here to teach these people our code of manners, not to learn theirs. You're making a big mistake.'

He only gave one of his curiously narrow-nosed double-barrelled sniffs at my denial, and continued: 'Well … I'll tell you something that happened to me not long ago. I carpeted the Tabiang kaubure (village headman) the other day to complain to him about the old men's habit of hawking and spitting when they get excited in the Native Court. I told him he must talk to them about it. My grievance was that a sudden outburst of that kind had drowned my voice when I was speaking to them …' He broke off to tell me coldly on a point of my own manners, that he would proceed when I had wiped that grin from my face.

'If I had put the thing to him as an offence against hygiene,' he continued, 'the kaubure would have got on their tails at once, but I didn't. All I talked to him about was the breach of courtesy to me. And this is what he did. He came forward to my desk and laid his hands on mine. Then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "How can I speak for you to the old men of Tabiang when you did what you did there only yesterday? Even you, who hold us in the palm of your hand?"'

It appeared that, in walking through Tabiang the day before, he had passed between two women – the wife and daughter of an elder – as they were chatting to each other across the road. Seeing them in conversation, he should have stopped before crossing their line of vision and asked permission to go on. There was a proper formula of words for that: 'E matauninga te aba? (Are the people offended?)' Had he used it, he would have been assured at once that nobody could be the least bit offended. But even then, it would have been proper for him to pass forward with head and shoulders bowed well below their eye-line. His page 35omission of these formalities had been the more astounding to the people because of his exalted rank among them. They had a proverb, 'Small is the voice of a chief,' which meant, in general, that gentleness and courtesy should walk hand in hand with power.

'The kaubure told me all this so quietly,' went on the Old Man, 'that I felt a fearful bounder. Of course, I asked him to take my apologies to Tabiang, and all was well again. But it was lucky for me he had the guts to talk as he did. Sometimes they don't talk, but keep it bottled up, and then things happen, and they get the blame in the long run when the initial fault was really ours. You may walk round the villages satisfied you're a hell of a fellow, while all the time they're thinking what a mannerless young pup you are … yes, and forgiving you too, and staying loyal in spite of everything. Let that sink in, and go and learn a bit about them. Yours is the honour, not theirs.'

He made me feel as if the brick he had dropped had been mine, not his.

The loving kindness of the Baanabans, in common with the whole Gilbertese race, towards Europeans sprang from no feeling of inferiority, but on the contrary, from a most gracious sense of kinship. Their chief ancestral heroes had been, according to tradition, fair-skinned like ourselves. Au of the Rising Sun with his sister-spouse Tituaabine of the Lightning; Tabuariki the Thunderer and his consort Tevenei of the Meteor; Riiki of the Milky Way, Taburimai the White King, and the woman Nimananoa, the Navigatress – all of these heroic beings, sprung from the branches and roots of a single ancestral tree, were of the red-complexioned, blue-eyed strain called 'The Company of the Tree, the Breed of Matang', from which the race claimed descent in the male line. The Land of Matang, where they dwelt eternally, was the land of heart's desire, the original fatherland, the paradise sweeter than all the other paradises, never to be found again by the children of men. Sometimes its forests and mountains might be glimpsed in dreams, but when the dreamer strove to land upon its smiling shores, they faded page 36away before him and he was alone on the empty waters. Yet, though Matang was lost forever, a cherished tradition said that Au of the Rising Sun had promised to return to his children one day, wherever they might be, with all the heroic Company of Matang around him. So, when white men were first seen in the Gilbert Islands nearly two hundred years ago, the people said (I quote the words of old Tearia of Tabiang, which themselves had become traditional), 'Behold, the Breed of Matang is returned to us. These folk are also of the Company of the Tree. Let us receive them as chiefs and brothers among us, lest the Ancestors be shamed.' Europeans have been called I-Matang; Inhabitants of Matang – ever since, and treated always, whatever their faults, with the proud brotherliness due to kinsmen.

I worked hard at my Gilbertese, and could make a crude show of talking it in four months. It was time then, the Old Man thought, for me to start learning about native customs. He told me to take lessons first of all from the kaubure of Tabiang village who had so gently reproved him. As a beginning, I prepared a list of questions about how a guest was received by the best Baanaban families, and how he ought to behave in reply. Nothing could have been more apt, as it turned out. Armed with the questionnaire, I went to the kaubure's house-place in the village an hour or so before sunset on the day arranged.

A little golden girl of seven, naked save for a wreath of white flowers on her glossy head, invited me to mount upon the raised floor of the mwenga. As she spread a fine guest-mat for me to sit upon, she told me her name was Tebutinnang – Movement-of-Clouds. Seated cross-legged on another mat, she explained with gravity that her grandfather had charged her to entertain me with conversation, should I arrive before his return from fishing. He would not be very long now; would I like to drink a coconut while she went on entertaining? When I said yes, please, she climbed down from the floor, brought in a nut which she had opened under the trees outside with a cutlass-knife almost as long as herself, sat down again, and offered it to me cupped in both hands, at arm's length, with her head a little bowed. 'You page 37shall be blessed,' she murmured as I took it. I did say 'Thank you' in reply, but even that was wrong; I should have returned her blessing word for word, and, after that, I should have returned the nut also, for her to take the first sip of courtesy; and at last, when I had received it back, I should have said, 'Blessings and Peace,' before beginning to drink the milk. All I did – woe is me! – was to take it, swig it off, and hand it back one-handed, empty, with another careless 'Thank you!'

She did not rise and run off with it as I expected, but sat on instead, with both arms clasping the nut to her little chest, examining me over the top of it.

'Alas!' she said at last in a shocked whisper, 'Alas! Is that the manners of a young chief of Matang?'

She told me one by one of the sins I have confessed, and I hung my head in shame, but that was not yet the full tale. My final discourtesy had been the crudest of all. In handing back the empty nut, I had omitted to belch aloud.

'How could I know when you did not belch,' she said, 'how could I know that my food was sweet to you? See, this is how you should have done it!'

She held the nut towards me with both hands, her earnest eyes fixed on mine, and gave vent to a belch so resonant that it seemed to shake her elfin form from stem to stern.

'That,' she finished, 'is our idea of good manners,' and wept for the pity of it.

Her grief was the more bitter because this was the first time her grandfather had ever charged her to receive a guest of his. I could not have let her down more abysmally. But one redeeming course seemed still open: I begged her to give me another chance when grandfather came in, and luckily the idea appealed to her. On his arrival, she sat him on his mat, smiled at me and clambered down from the floor to fetch a nut for each of us. I made no mistakes that time; the volume of my final effort shocked me, but it pleased grandfather profoundly and Movement-of-Clouds clapped her little hands for happiness of heart.

It was in my orders to submit written reports on these lessons to the Old Man. In that way, he said, he could keep track of my page 38doings in the villages. I wrote rather fully about the coconut incident, under the heading 'Honourable Eructation', and for some reason of his own he wanted to check up on it. So, one day, we went together by appointment to the village headman's house for an official try-out, but without announcement of the basic motive. A visit from the Resident Commissioner was a big event, and a lot of relatives were there, the women – even small Movement-of-Clouds – all horribly dressed in mission-school Mother Hubbards. I found that rather daunting; also, the presence of my chief threatened to inhibit my output of good taste at the crucial moment. But when I heard the pusillanimous little compromise of a noise, like a politely frustrated hiccough, that he emitted on handing back his nut, I felt that the crumbling prestige of the Men of Matang was mine alone to save in that exquisite village by the sea. It turned me into the champion of a cause – yes, and my effort was indeed the effort of a champion. Au of the Rising Sun himself could not have bettered it. It astounded even our hosts. Movement-of-Clouds shrieked for joy; the rest were convulsed with mixed passions of laughter and fulfilment; people from other houses came crowding round to share the joke; soon, the whole village was rocking with my excess of good manners; and through it all, I, the undoubted hero of the piece, sat gabbling in vain to convince my livid chief that it was one of nature's relieving accidents, the trick of an ailing stomach, an act of God, anything, anything that might serve to save me for a moment from the glare of his cold eyes.

People are fond of saying that you only have to set your mind on a thing firmly enough and long enough for it to come your way at last. My own experience in the service has (doubtless healthily for me) not always corroborated this encouraging doctrine, but I have found that Circumstance – or Providence, or whatever else you like to call it – has a way of returning quick and funny answers to a man's more unreasonable disgruntlements. I was taking a sunset walk one day, after about a year on Ocean Island, in a state of noble discontent. World War I, which we called the page 39Great War then, was nine months old, and I was to be allowed neither to join up nor to go and do a real he-man's job in the Gilbert group. I had no title whatever to go to an out-district, as I had not yet passed my final examinations; but the luxury of life on Ocean Island (with its electric light, frozen meat, fresh vegetables – all from the Company – and mails every month or so) struck me as unworthy of the times. So also did the mainly clerical nature of my duties. I felt that the Colonial Service was turning out, for me, a very soft kind of service. With these thoughts in mind, I came to the inland village of Buakonikai, embowered among its palms and breadfruit trees on the crest of the island.

Looking ahead down the main avenue between the lines of dwellings, I saw a crowd collected in the open space up against the village maneaba (speak-house). The gathering was unusual for that time of day, because the sunset hour belonged by custom to the evening meal. They stood in a wide ring, so intent upon something at the centre that nobody noticed me until I touched an elderly man's shoulder. But, when he turned and saw me, he caught my hand in his and drew me forward.

'Look, all of you!' he cried, 'the Young Man of Matang has arrived!'

They evidently felt that my arrival had solved some problem for them, and when they had made a way through for me, I saw what it was.

A naked man of quite outrageous size (or so it seemed to me) was squatting on his heels at the centre of the circle. His shoulders were crouched forward so that his armpits were propped by his knees. His lank hair was in wild disorder, and he had smeared dust on the sweat of his face. A small knife dangled idly from his left hand; in his right was a cutlass, with which he was slashing around at objects in the air apparently visible to himself, though not to us. His teeth were bared in a rictus that struck me as even more sinister than the worst my Old Man had ever directed at me. But he took not the smallest notice of the crowd. It was as if we were not there for him, except that it stuck out of him about as plainly as death that he was alive to every movement we made.

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'This man is mad,' explained my companions, quite unnecessarily, and added, 'we hope you will now bring him to reason for us.'

It appeared that bringing him to reason meant leading him to some place where he could be safely guarded until the fit was over.

'He will not resist you,' they assured me comfortably: 'Ourselves he would resist, for he has taken up his knives against us, and it would shame him now not to use them. Therefore, if we go to take him, we must use sticks and knives for our own defence; and this would not be suitable, for we are many, and he is mad, and we should probably kill him, and he is our brother.'

Their conviction that he could not possibly dream of doing violence to me was based upon the one fact that I was a Man of Matang. Not even a madman could forget that, they said. All I had to do was to approach him, take his hands in mine and say, 'Sir, I beg you to come with me.' The point was, I must not forget to use those words 'I beg you.' The high honour of being thus formally entreated by a chief of Matang would probably heal his sick mind at once, as well as oblige him to obey my every wish after that. The bigger the audience, of course, the more excellent the honour would seem to him. They would, therefore, sit in a semi-circle before him, while I went forward to do the doings.

They rushed around collecting fallen coconut leaves to sit upon, while I was left standing to survey my problem. He was still squatting and slashing the air. He must have heard every word of the excited talk, but he gave no sign whatever of appreciating my honourable intentions. The quality of his grin seemed, if anything, even more threatening than before. I could not help feeling that his chivalry towards me was definitely inferior to that of his fellows towards himself. I must confess also to wondering how soon it would be decent for me to get those saving words 'I beg you' said. Was it absolutely de rigueur for me to walk right up to him and lay my hands on his before uttering them? Surely this was a most unreasonable stipulation. But my craven thoughts were cut short: 'We are ready,' called a page 41voice, and the babble of talking ceased. The courteous ceremony was now open.

I trod the first fifteen yards or so as delicately as Agag before his murderous Prophet. My eyes saw nothing but the whirling knife. If he didn't stop flourishing it when I got near him, what was I going to do? Walk right into it? My legs began to feel more stick-like even than they were. Oh, shut up, shouted my mind, and blacked out. I had no thoughts whatever for the last few paces.

He kept it up, with his teeth bared, until I was within a yard of him. Then he suddenly relaxed and smiled up at me. As I laid my hands on his wrists, I thought I had never seen such a welcome smile in my life before; but I did wish he would drop those knives. He did nothing of the kind; after I had said my piece, he got up, still holding them, and flung his arms round my neck. I heard a murmur of joyful approbation burst from the audience. This was evidently a good show, so far. But for that reassurance, I should have struggled to break out of his grip, for it was throttling me, and the little knife was round by my left ear, and the big one was searching my right ribs, and he was making inarticulate noises in his throat. The longer it went on, and the unhappier I felt, the happier the crowd became, and the longer it went on. When at last he found words, it was to bawl over my shoulder, 'O, Young Man of Matang, I love thee, I love thee!' This was the only protestation of its kind I had ever received from a male, and I did not really enjoy it; but the villagers groaned with delight, 'O, joy! O, blessings! He loves, he loves the Young Man of Matang,' and that encouraged him to further declarations of affection. My face was by this time purple and my hair, in every sense, on end. I don't know how much longer I could have borne the ignominy and terror of it; I don't think the audience would ever have intervened to cut short that riot of improving emotion. It was a sudden new arrival among them that saved me. The first thing I knew about it was the voice of a little girl shrilling from behind my back, 'Shameless, shameless Barane!' At once, my neck was released from the strangle-hold. I flung his limp arms from my shoulders. Barane stood alone with hanging head before the little girl. She was page 42about twelve years old, and flaming with righteous anger. They told me she was his mother's brother's daughter, and he had been her special charge for several years. She certainly knew how to order him about.

'Give me those knives at once,' she shouted, and he surrendered them.

'Now tell this company you are sorry.'

He did.

'Now tell the Young Man of Matang you are sorry.'

He hesitated a little, and then murmured, 'I love, I love the Young Man of Matang. I wish him to go with me.'

'He shall lead you home,' she replied, without consulting me, 'take hold of his hand.' The order was addressed as much to myself as to him. I meekly obeyed it. It would be hard to say which of us looked the more sheepish as she drove us together, hand-in-hand before her, down the village street. I felt I must surely be living up to Mr Johnson's doctrine about the humility of leadership, but the thought gave me little or no sense of dignity.

When he was safely installed at home, I ventured to ask a group of villagers why they had not thought of fetching the little girl at once, instead of giving the job to me, a stranger. They had a perfect answer to that, from their point of view. Their case was that they certainly would have fetched her in the ordinary course, but my sudden arrival had placed an obligation on them. As a chief of Matang, I had the right to the first word and the last word in all things; therefore, the only possible course in politeness was to surrender to me the honour of handling the situation for Barane's family. And besides, it was somehow kamaiu (enlivening) when a Man of Matang shared their difficulties with them – much more kamaiu than when they worked alone. I gathered from this that they felt I had enjoyed the evening's fun as much as they had. I did not trouble to disabuse them and, for the rest, what objection could I possible have urged against their generous courtesy of heart towards my race?

page 43

I had few chances of making mistakes as a boarding officer under Methven's supervision, because it entailed little but sitting in a beautiful thirty-two-foot surf-boat while the peerless crew of Ellice Islanders did all the skilled work. But the business was exciting, as it took in the landing of mails and small cargo for the Government, and this meant going out in all sorts of weather. In the westerly gales that blew up between September and March, the ships in the unsheltered bay lay plunging like frightened stallions a mile or more clear of the yelling reef. It was a hard row out to them in the teeth of wind and sea, and tricky work taking in such things as crates from their slings; also, the surf in the boat-passage could be theatrical beyond imagination; nothing short of perfection in a boat's crew was needed to negotiate it with heavy goods aboard.

The crew was indeed perfect, but when Methven was around he never would allow me out alone in dirty weather, which sometimes embittered me exceedingly. When I claimed to be, after all, an adult, he only laughed raucously and called me 'The Young Blaster' – not a young blaster but the young blaster, with reference to the backyard incident. But towards the end of 1915 he went over to Tarawa for a while, and I got a real chance of distinguishing myself.

Two days before Christmas, the old Moresby, bound for the Gilbert group, came weltering into Home Bay and signalled, about 4 p.m., that she had on board a new porcelain bath and three cases of whisky for the Residency. Would we take delivery at once, please, as a westerly blow had started and the captain wanted to make for Tarawa lagoon that night.

The boat-passage looked awful to me, and I don't think I should have tackled it only for the sake of the Resident Commissioner's bath. But the whisky was another matter; the station was dry of anything but beer, and the cheeriness of our Christmas season depended on the landing of those three cases; they were not for the Old Man alone, but for all of us. A full-blown District Officer, Charles Workman, was staying at the Residency. I had particularly in mind what he might say if I let the stuff go. So out we went.

We found the bath waiting for us in the ship's slings. Have page 44you ever tried to catch a bath in a boat from the davits of a ship rolling twenty-five degrees? There it goes at one moment, hurtling up and away from you as the vessel wallows to windward; and there it comes now, roaring down at you with the whole ship's side, as she takes her leeward lurch. There is just an occasional second or two between rolls when you can snatch it aboard without scuppering yourself. We waited half an hour for our chance in that brutal seaway; but we did get away with it when it came, thanks to the superb boat's crew. I was so braced with the thing, I sang aloud with the steersman as we shot the harbour entrance. 'This is the life,' I thought when I read the note that awaited me on the boat jetty. The Old Man had watched us through his telescope; he had written to thank and congratulate all of us. 'And please,' his letter ended, 'have the whisky brought straight up to the Residency, and join us in a drink.' It was the proudest moment of my life – except that the whisky was not there. It was in the ship. In the excitement about the bath, I had left without it.

There was only one thing to be done. Dusk was falling when we got out to the ship again. We clawed the three cases aboard somehow, and started off on the homeward pull … and we pulled, and we pulled, and we pulled, and we gained not a yard shorewards. No boat in creation could have made it against that current. We were in the wrong end of a tide-rip that was scouring the bay. We found ourselves being swept round Solomon's Point into the open Pacific. In the end, after dark, the ship had to take us all on board, and I slept the night there, except when the captain came to abuse me. It was only at three o'clock the next afternoon that the weather abated and the captain got rid of us. The ship was standing away round the point as we landed.

'Well,' I thought, 'we've done the trick, anyhow. It's still Christmas Eve, and here we are with the goods.' Yes, that again could have been one of my life's high moments – if the whisky had been there. But it wasn't. The boat captain and I scrabbled through every nook of the boat, but it just was not there. And then the piteous truth came out; two men of that devoted crew had risked a lot the night before to get the liquor safely back on page 45the ship when I had gone aboard. Only, they had forgotten to say so before our return to shore. Not a thing could be done about it now. There was the whisky steaming away to Tarawa.

When I got to the Residency, they were ail there, the married ones with wives annexed, waiting to greet me. Olivia was there, too. They cheered me from the front steps as I crawled up to them. They clapped me on the back. They were waiting to divide the whisky. 'My word, young Grimble,' they said, 'we'll drink the first one for you when it arrives.' Olivia looked so proud. But forgive me. I cannot go on. In the years that followed, Olivia never once reminded me of that day. Never, at least, until I became a Governor. But then, Governors need that kind of reminder.