A Pattern of Islands
Before Ocean Island was included in the Protectorate (which happened in 1900) Tarawa had been the official headquarters of page 77the group, and there, near its southern end, stood the old Residency looking north over the lagoon, with a flagstaff and a sea-wall of dressed coral blocks before it. As one faced the lagoon, a broad road, bordered by crinum lilies and shaded by palms, led away to the right, two hundred yards along the sea-wall, to the boat harbour. A long, low mole of coral blocks stretched from the boat harbour out across the tidal flat of rust-red coral to the edge of blue water, like a thin grey finger pointing into emptiness. On the left of the house, beyond a clump of bitter figs, were the prisons and police lines. The senior Medical Officer lived over by the thunderous ocean beach near the colony's central hospital. A spare bungalow stood there too, waiting for another Medical Officer who (in those days) never appeared.
The busy village of Betio lay curved around the beach-head of its own bay beyond the police lines, at the southernmost extremity of the land. It was very much the same, on a big scale, as Baanaban Uma, with its canoe-sheds and airy lodges, its lily-bordered avenue and the flicker of shadow and sunlight beneath the moving canopy of its palm-crests. Only the hot crimson and vermilion of poinsiana and hibiscus were absent. All the flowers were starry white. It was as if Nature had conspired there to give tired eyes rest from the flames of beach and lagoon. It was form, not colour, that entranced us in the brown villages of the atolls-the grace of trees overleaning water, the rare sensitiveness of pencilled line and shadow, the matchless transparencies of atmosphere.
An ancient Austrian sailorman whom everyone called Old Anton had his trade-store in the village, and a Father of the Sacred Heart Mission was stationed there. Old Anton, the Father and the Senior Medical Officer were all the white company we had in those days, save for the aged Roman Catholic Bishop and two other Fathers who came to see us sometimes from up-lagoon. But we were not particularly looking for white company, and we were delighted with our lagoonside home. The old Residency was a handsome wooden house, a big one for that part of the world, built on two floors with deep verandahs shaded all round by louvred shutters. Upstairs were two large page 78bedrooms west and middle, but, instead of a third room under the eastern gable, an open loggia of forty by twenty feet. With its shutters wide to the trade-wind, the loggia was divinely cool for sleeping, so Olivia and the baby and I had our beds there.
We loved to walk down to Betio village half an hour before sunset with our nursemaid Faasolo pushing Joan in her pram between us. The trade-wind often dropped its wings (as the lovely Gilbertese idiom put it) when the expectation of dusk was falling on sea and forest. There was a pearly mist over the lagoon, infinitely fine-drawn and tender. A heavenly coolness, as of dewfall, pervaded the village. Shadows were purpling under the high vault of palm-leaves. People sang and children shouted. The canoes of the fishermen were home with the day's catch and the evening meal was cooking. The noise of life and laughter was stabbed randomly by the staccato of snapping sticks and the joyous crackle of embers. The babble of talking groups rose and fell like the beat of a pulse of happiness on the lily-scented air.
No white baby had ever been seen before on Tarawa. The villagers seemed never tired of looking at Joan's blue eyes and golden hair. One evening, a small naked girl in the crowd mustered at gaze around the pram piped aloud, 'Ai bia arau arante tei-n-aine aei (I would that this girl-child's name could be my name!)'
They hushed her and shushed her as if she had uttered an infamy. But, creeping to Olivia's side, she clung to her hand and gazed up into her eyes repeating in an urgent whisper, 'I would that her name could be mine!' Olivia drew her close and I protested, 'What's all the fuss about? Why shouldn't she take the name of Joan if she wants to? Would her parents mind?'
The crowd was silent. Then someone shouted, 'Here is her mother!' and they all fell back a step or two.
The mother stood forward in the ring, a tiny, vivid creature dressed only in a tight waistcloth of gay print. 'Sir, is this true?' she cried, taking both my hands in hers. 'Will the woman of Matang allow it? May my child take the name of her child?'page 79
I turned to Olivia: 'Of course she may,' she said: 'What's to stop it if the mother likes it?'
There was a shout of pleasure from the audience. The mother, looking her thanks, led her small girl to the side of the pram and, bending over it, addressed our sleeping Joan with a smile of tender courtesy: 'Neiko (Woman), I have thrown away the name of this my girl-child and taken your name for her instead. Your mother says I may. See, here is your name-sister and servant for evermore, Joan of Betio, who shall obey your word in all things.'
And the new Joan, leaning in her turn over the pram, whispered, 'Joan-o-o, Joan-o-o, my name-sister and my toka (chief), I will love and serve you for evermore and obey your word in all things.' Then, turning to Olivia, she added with clear-eyed candour, 'Neiko, look you! I must go to school every day, or the Father will be angry. But after school every day, I will be ready to come to my sister, no matter when you call me.' And ready she always was, never intruding, never in the way, but infallibly on the spot with love and service for Joan or any one of us, for as long as we stayed on Tarawa.
On our walks through the village, we often turned into Old Anton's trade-store to pass the time of day. All our main shopping was, of course, done in the trading ships, whose supercargoes took our orders for bulk supplies to Australia and brought the goods back on their return, half a year or more later. But catering for six or eight months at a time is a tricky business. There were always odds and ends that we found we needed by the way. Anton kept a marvellous assortment of these beyond the ordinary run of prints and tobacco, sailcloth and fishing gear, sheath-knives and tools, sewing-cotton and kerosene that ranked as village necessities. He was particularly strong on Chinese silks, mouth organs and perfumery. The two last made very acceptable presents for village friends.
It was pleasant to take small gifts to friends at the happy hour before sunset. The polite approach was to walk up to the side of a mwenga and stand there silent, with one hand resting on the edge of the raised floor as if begging leave to enter, until someone said the right welcoming words.page 80
Usually, a grandfather or grandmother sitting inside spoke first: 'Sir and Woman, you shall be blest. Whence come you at the sunset hour?'
'You shall be blest. We come from our house over there in the east.'
'And you will do what in this place?' 'We will visit this mwenga and those who dwell in it.' 'Aia! It is well. You wish to gossip with us?' 'We wish to gossip a little. That is the way of it.' 'Ai-i-i-a!'—on a long, indrawn breath of deepest pleasure-'So it is well. Blessings and peace. Mount! Mount!'
On the last words, the young women of the household would dart forward to spread fine mats on the edge of the floor next to us. We would take our seats there with legs dangling over the side, saying as we mounted, 'We pray this mwenga may be blest with all of you within.'
'You shall be blest,' answered everyone together, and after that the gossip was free for all.
The gifts we brought would be given only just before leaving. We had a working agreement about how they must be given: Olivia did all the presentations to females, I to males, except where very old people were concerned. This arrangement seemed to guarantee us freedom from the least breath of scandal. Scandalous talk was, as a matter of fact, a thing much more to be guarded against on my side than on Olivia's. The attitude of Gilbertese men to white women was the perfection of reverent chivalry, wherever one went. The attitude of the laughing, golden girls towards white men was perhaps on the average, a little profane, for the simple reason that, on the average, the white men seldom qualified to be reverenced by them as saints. The idea of my never making a personal gift to a lady was absolutely sound. But there was just one case that our careful technique failed to provide against.
The thing happened when Olivia was expecting another baby early in the New Year, and the whole of Tarawa was agog with delight at the prospect. The new arrival would be the first child of the Breed of Matang ever to be born on their own soil of Tarawa. It was an epoch-making event for all the eighteen vil-page 81lages , but most of all for the people of Betio, who talked with Olivia every day and claimed the right to reckon themselves her private bodyguard.
They treated her like a beloved goddess wherever we went, and hung upon her every word, seeking to find in even the littlest things she said some guide to how they might help and protect her. They noticed me only as her husband, at most to ask how I thought they might ease the feet of Missis-as they were calling her by then-along the road to her great hour. That protective spirit, that eagerness to interpret her every need, was really the key to what followed-not forgetting, of course, the subtleties of custom in connection with gifts of perfumery.
Olivia and I had just finished tea one afternoon when a very sweet village girl, crowned with a wreath of white flowers, came up the front steps and stood with bowed head on the verandah waiting to be invited farther in.
'Why, hullo, Voice-of-the-Tide!' said Olivia. 'Do you want to talk to us? Come in and sit down.'
Voice-of-the-Tide crept forward, her head still deeply bowed, and sat on the mat before our feet. 'Yes, I come to speak … I come to say …' she murmured and fell silent, nervously clasping and unclasping her beautiful hands.
"Well, don't be afraid of us. We won't bite your head off'– Olivia and she had always been great friends-'What's on your mind?'
'I come to thank you for yesterday evening. I am very proud … I come to say … ' Speech failed her again. She had not yet lifted her eyes to ours.
'Te raoi (Don't mention it),' Olivia answered her word of thanks. We thought we knew what that referred to. We had visited her people's mwenga the evening before, and Olivia had given her a small bottle of scent. But why should a casual gift have left her so constrained?
It was only after a long, long silence that she raised her head and whispered, looking me in the eyes, 'The gift of love that Misses gave me …. I am very proud to be chosen … I am ready … when shall I come to the Man of Matang?' and burst into bitter tears. 'But my sweetheart will never page 82forgive me!' she wailed. 'Alas! Alas! The miserable girl I am!' The ghastly truth took half an hour to piece together between her tempest of sobbing.
It was the custom for a Gilbertese lady of high birth to choose, during her last months of pregnancy, some young unmarried friend of hers for the nightly comfort of her husband. 'For look you,' said Voice-of-the-Tide's father to me later, 'it secures the safety of the child. And not that alone. It secures also for the mother the continual loving-kindness of her husband and that other woman.'
But the matter was one of such delicacy for all concerned that no preliminary words about it might ever pass between them. The husband and the not-impossible-shes simply waited for the expectant mother to give the customary sign of her choice. The sign was the handing of a gift of anything sweet-scented-a wreath of flowers, a bottle of perfume-to the chosen girl in the presence of the husband. So high was the compliment, so deeply felt the obligation of kindness to the pregnant, that no girl of good breeding could possibly refuse the charge thus laid upon her.
Nobody in the village doubted for an instant what Olivia had meant by her gift. The place was buzzing for joy at the delicate correctitude of it. Everyone was pleased, in fact, except Voice-of-the-Tide and her sweetheart. I felt that Olivia was a little malicious about that when Voice-of-the-Tide, most earnestly reassured by myself as to the purity of my own intentions towards her, dried her tears and smiled again: 'Tell me,' said Olivia, 'if you had not had a sweetheart, would you have felt differently about it?'
'I aki (Not I),' replied Voice-of-the-Tide without a moment's courteous hesitation.
'And why not?' Olivia's tone simply egged her on.
She eyed me up and down gravely before she answered: 'This chief of Matang is very kind … but'-she rippled into giggles.
Nothing, I am glad to say, would induce her to say more. I left them to their laughter. I had a few words to say in the village – alone.