The Forgotten One
BY JAMES NORMAN HALL
SOMEONE, reading this memoir, may recall my earlier account of Crichton, the solitary white inhabitant of a small coral island in the Low Archipelago. The recollection would be vague at best, I fear; for although I tried to give a vivid impression both of the man and of the lonely beauty of Tanao, the island where he lives, the attempt, I know, was a failure. I spent a good deal of time over that earlier sketch, writing, rewriting, changing a word here and a phrase there, hoping to discover either by chance or by dint of patient effort the magic formula which would conjure up the place for some reader who would never see it. It was useless. The best I could do fell so far short of my hopes that at last I gave up in despair and ended my little story abruptly, with these words: —
‘The damaged whaleboat having been repaired, we rowed out to the schooner and were under weigh by midafternoon. For three hours I watched the island dwindling and blurring until, at sunset, it was lost to view beneath the rim of the southern horizon. Still I looked back, imagining that I could see a diminishing circle of palmclad land — a mere speck at last — dropping farther and farther away down the reverse slope of the sea as though it were vanishing for all time from the knowledge and the concern of men.’
So I closed my story. That was four years ago. I have wandered far from Tanao since then, but the memory of it has follow ed me everywhere: through America, England, Denmark, Norway, Iceland. In a crowded restaurant in New York where the waitresses shouted orders down a call-tube and the air was loud with the clatter of dishes and the hum of conversation, I have seen the palm trees of Tanao bending to the southeast trade, and Crichton sitting in the shade, far up the beach, hands clasped about his knees, looking out over the empty sea. I have walked, at high noon, along Princes Street in Edinburgh and heard ‘Mamma-Ruau,’ the old native woman from whom Crichton leased his island, singing softly to herself as she broiled fish over an open fire on the lagoon beach. In Iceland, while watching the visible music of the northern lights, I have felt the softness of the air at Tanao and the smoke ot the surf on my face, from the combers rising to their height and thundering over the barrier reef. The island and its two lonely inhabitants have been more real to me, often, than the streets through which I passed or the people with whom I sat at table. No effort of the will was needed to call them up. They came of themselves, at strange moments, in strange places; and then, no matter where my body happened to be, my spirit seemed to leave it and fly straight to an atom of an island in the midmost Pacific.
Despite the briefness of the first visit — of two days’ duration only — I must have left a part of myself at Tanao, as it is said one does wherever one goes; and it is necessary at times to revisit these shadowy, fragmentary selves left behind as one grows older. But it was not so much a lost self to which I returned at Tanao, as one I had never had, and Crichton was its flcsh-and-blood embodiment. He represented, to me, certain qualities I have always longed to possess, but chiefly, I think, I envied him his exceptional capacity for solitude — at least, I thought it exceptional then. I am not likely to forget the day in March 1920 when we landed at Tanao and he found that it was, in truth, the ideal retreat he had searched for during ten years of ceaseless wandering. It was the first time he had seen it and I chanced to be traveling on the schooner which carried him out. The only inhabitant was the old Paumotan woman — ‘Mamma-Ruau’ (Grandma), he always called her — who owned the place. No boats touched there except by arrangement. The lagoon had no entrance and in order to land it was necessary to ride the surf in a small boat, over one of the most dangerous reefs in the whole of the Dangerous Archipelago.
All of this delighted him — but that is not the word. His joy was something so much deeper than delight that it seemed there could be no adequate expression of it. He conveyed to me — I scarcely know how — a sense of this. Life could never be long enough for him now. He was only twenty-eight, and I confess that, at times, this deep joy at the prospect of uninterrupted solitude seemed to me a little mad in a man of his age.
What had life done to him that he should be so glad to leave it? To bury himself here? He did not have a guilty conscience. Five minutes of talk with him would have convinced anyone of that. Furthermore, no man with a guilty conscience would have sought out a place where he would be so terribly alone with it. I came to the conclusion — and despite what happened later I still think it the right one — that he is one of those men who love solitude as other men love beauty; that to him it is really a manifestation of beauty in its most ravishing, pitiless form.
At last the desire to return in the flesh to Tanao was no longer to be withstood.
I remember precisely the moment when the ache of longing became hardest to bear and the decision to appease it was made. It was on a November evening. I was in Boston, living in lodgings high up on Beacon Hill, my windows looking down one of the side streets leading to the Common and on beyond to Boylston Street. I had been trying to read, gave it up, turned out the light, and sat by the window. Facing me from across the Common was a huge electric sign, an arresting, exasperating device in which a series of lighted words moved endlessly out of darkness into darkness. I must have observed it before, subconsciously; but on this occasion, in order to keep from thinking, I let my eyes follow the moving inscription, and my brain took the impress of it with the accuracy of a photographic plate. I believe I can still quote it, word for word: —
THERE IS ON SALE IN THE DRUG STORES OF THIS CITY AN ANTISEPTIC PREPARATION ONE HUNDRED TIMES STRONGER THAN CARBOLIC ACID AND YET AS HARMLESS WHEN APPLIED TO THE HUMAN BODY AS PURE WATER. IT IS NONPOISONOUS AND DOES NOT BUBBLE WHEN APPLIED. IT ACTUALLY KILLS GERMS. IT PUTS AN END TO ACCIDENTAL POISONING AND SHOULD BE IN EVERY MEDICINE CHEST. THE NAME OF THIS ANTISEPTIC IS
But neither the name nor the antiseptic itself is of any great consequence in this memoir. I left Boston the same evening, and awoke, not many weeks later, in my old room at the hotel on the water front of a tropical island port in the mid-Pacific.
I might have left the place yesterday. The same old paper on the walls; the same mosquito netting around the bed, with the rents in it neatly drawn together; the same tin bucket with the dent in it by the washstand; the same dilapidated wardrobe, the shelves covered with pages from the Sydney Bulletin and the Auckland Weekly News; the same tattered hotel-register dating from 1902, and the same genial portly landlord bringing it up for me to sign before I was out of bed. We had a very pleasant chat about island affairs, and in the midst of it I chanced to speak of a defective board in the floor of the verandah and how I had nearly broken my leg there, coming up in the dark the night before.
‘Why, don’t you remember that hole?’ he asked, quite seriously, in genuine surprise. I realized, clearly enough, that the fault was not his for not having it repaired, but mine for not having remembered during four years that repair was needed. How glad I was to be back in a place where life is so leisurely as that! Where all things, animate and inanimate, — even a hole in a verandah floor, — seem to partake of a timeless ideal existence like that of the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn.
It was still quite early. Chinamen were sweeping the street with their long-handled brooms, heaping the dead leaves and twigs and withered blossoms from the flamboyant trees into neat piles against the coming of the rubbish cart. I had a pleasant thrill of anticipation, remembering the former driver of this cart. Girot was his name, a thin wiry little Frenchman of uncertain age. He called his horse ‘Banane’ and carried on with her an endless animated conversation as they wandered along the street. Were they too under the enchantment of timelessness? Yes, here they came presently, Girot, barefoot as usual, walking behind the cart, carrying the two little boards with which he picked up the piles of leaves. He was in the usual costume: floppy pandanus hat, tattered undershirt, and denim overalls faded to a whitish blue by many washings. More than likely it was the same pair of overalls. Banane was a trifle bonier, if that is possible, than I had remembered her. She moved as deliberately as ever. I could count twenty-five while the wheel of the cart, was making a single revolution, but Girot was reproaching her in the old manner for going too fast: —
‘Whoa! Whoa, sacré nom cle Balzac! Écoute, Banane! Penses-tu que nous sommes sur un champ de course ? Comment? Ah non alors! Oui, je comprends; pour toi ça ne fait rien. Mais pour moi? Je ne suis pas garçon, moi. J’ai plus de soixante ans. Maintenant nous allons jusqu’au coin de la rue — tu vois? Et la prochaine fois, quand je dis “Whoa!” arrête-toi. Tu comprends? Bon! En route!’
No one paid the least attention to them — no one ever did — and at last they were out of hearing. Natives were passing to and from the market with strings of fish, containers of green bamboo filled with fermented coconut sauce and fresh-water shrimps, baskets of fruit and vegetables. It was good to hear again their soft voices, the slither of their bare feet, to smell the humid odors of tropical vegetation; to look across the still lagoon to an island fifteen miles distant, every fantastic peak outlined against the sky — all that a South Sea island should be and surpassing my most splendid dreams of one, as a boy. I whistled for the first time in months while taking my bath, — luckily there were no other guests in the hotel,— then sat down in pyjamas to breakfast on the upstairs verandah, just as I used to do.
While I was drinking my coffee the landlord returned, bringing a suit of white drill I had left behind in the hurry of departure four years ago.
‘I thought you would come back sometime,’ he said, ‘so I did n’t give it away.’
In one of the pockets I found a piece of scratch paper covered with penciled notes, all of them having to do with either Crichton or his island, reminding me how completely he had engaged my interest during the time of my first sojourn in the South Seas. Among other notes I found this one, an attempt to describe him in a paragraph: —
‘He is one of those lonely spirits — without friends or any of the ties that make life pleasant to most of us — who wander the unpeopled places of the earth, interested in a detached way in what they see from afar or faintly hear; but looking quietly on, taking no part, being blessed, or cursed, by nature with a love of silence, of the unchanging peace of great solitudes. Now and then one reads of such men in fiction, and if they live in fiction it is because of individuals like Crichton, their prototypes in reality, seen for a moment as they slip apprehensively across some bypath leading from the outside world.’
Reading this again, I wondered, as I had at the time of writing it, whether it were true; whether I had not been describing a quite imaginary figure rather than a flesh-and-blood reality. Well, I should know, soon. Four years had passed, ample time for anyone to test the nature of his capacities for solitude. Had Crichton found his adequate? Viewed in one light, my deep interest in this question seemed absurd. And yet as I have said, or implied, here was a man, not at all of the phlegmatic temperament, who appeared to have within himself inexhaustible resources against boredom — the greatest curse which spirit is heir to. He at least was confident of having them. He would never leave Tanao, he had told me. He was sure that he could be happy there though he were never again to see a human being of any kind. It would have been hard to rest content without knowing what had happened to him.
I made a hasty breakfast and started in the cool of the morning in search of some trading schooner bound for the Low Islands. Along the water front fifteen or twenty vessels from all parts of the eastern Pacific were unloading pearl shell and copra, taking in cargoes of rice and flour, lumber, tinned food, and assorted merchandise. Among them was the Caleb Winship, the two-masted schooner which had taken Crichton to Tanao at the time when I first met him. Tino, her supercargo then, had since been made captain. I found him in the cabin checking over bills of lading. He is a dry, blunt man, Tino, three quarters American blood and one quarter Rarotongan. For all the fact that he was born among them I doubt whether he has ever seen the islands or ever will sec them; but he can tell you to a dot what each of them produces in pearl shell and copra.
' Well! ‘ he said, holding out his hand. ‘Have n’t seen you for some time. Where you been keeping yourself? Living out in the country?’
I told him I had just come from America; then, after a quarter of an hour’s chat of indifferent matters, I asked in a by-the-way fashion for news of Crichton.
‘Crichton? Crichton? Who’s — Oh! You mean that Swede — that Dane— '
‘He is an Englishman,’ I said.
‘Whatever he was. Hell, no! I have n’t seen him since we was out there — you remember? — the time we stove in my new whaleboat going over the reef. Funny thing!’ he added. ‘I have n’t thought of him from that day to this. He might be dead for all I know — or care, for that matter.’
Now that he was reminded, it was plain that Tino was still sore on the subject of Crichton. He had consented to carry him to Tanao because he thought there was something of commercial interest in view. ‘He can’t fool me!’ I remembered him saying more than once during that voyage. ‘He’s got something up his sleeve, and I’m going to find out what it is.’ When he had satisfied himself that the island was as barren as it had always been, he set Crichton down as either crazy or some knave in hiding. Remembering his disgust at the loss of time in going so far out of his way, I knew it would be useless asking him to go again. Nevertheless I did ask, for the Winship was on the point of sailing for that part of the Pacific.
‘What! Tanao? Not much! I’m not traveling for my health. But what do you want to go back there for, if it’s any of my business?’
‘I rather liked the place,’ I said. ‘You don’t see such islands in my part of the world.’
‘Ought to be glad you don’t. Why anyone should go to one of them Godforsaken little holes of his own free will beats me. Well, that Swede can rot in his. He prob’ly has. He’s prob’ly dead or gone somewheres else long before this.’
At the end of two weeks I was almost at the point of accepting this opinion. During that time I spent many hours along the water front, loafed through long afternoons at the club, the hotel, and the other favorite resorts for traders, planters, pearlbuyers, and sailors. I made many discreet, casual inquiries, — never direct, interested ones, — knowdng how jealous of his solitude Crichton had been; how concerned lest even talk of Tanao by others should sully the purity of its loneliness. Little chance of that. ‘Tanao? Oh yes! The Madeleine went on the reef there — let me see, when was it? Nineteen-four, I think.’ That was the most recent bit of information I gathered in talk on the club verandah. As for Crichton, no one apparently, in that place where everyone is known, had heard of him. I was considering the possibility of chartering a small Paumotu cutter for a special voyage, when I met an old friend, Chan Lee, captain of a one-hundred-ton vessel belonging to a firm of his fellow countrymen. I had once made a long voyage with Chan. He is a good sailor for a Chinaman, with all the fine personal qualities of the Oriental at his best; but he carries minding-his-own-business to curious lengths. It was not until a week after I first spoke to him of Crichton that he admitted knowing him.
‘Go Tanow once year,’ he said, holding up a finger as though to emphasize the infrequency of his visits. ‘Not much copla — five ton.’ Then, as an afterthought apparently, ‘Clichton say, suppose I see you, tell you come back sometime.’
‘What! He asked you to tell me that?’
I confess that I was pleased. Slightly as I knew Crichton I had a warm regard for him, carefully concealed, of course; for his attitude throughout our brief acquaintanceship on the Winship had been merely that of fellow passengers on shipboard everywhere — pleasant, courteous, but without a hint of intimacy.
‘Yes, he say that,’ said Chan. ‘Hlee year far away now. Bimeby nex’ week I go. You come along me?’
On the following Monday we were outward bound. Chan had a dozen islands to visit first, and during the early part of the voyage the schooner was crowded with native passengers. These were gradually dispersed, the last of them at an island one hundred and fifty miles distant from Tanao. Owing to alternate calms and head winds we were five days in covering the last leg of the voyage, and thirty-eight days out when we sighted the island. Crichton need not have feared for the purity of its loneliness. It was lonelier than the sea. It seemed to have gathered to itself an esoteric kind of loneliness peculiar to the man who lived at the heart of it. It seemed a place he had dreamed into being, created out of fancy through sheer strength of longing. And there he was, alone of his kind, and there he had been for four years without once having left, it. Chan gave me this information.
‘He like stay here. Stay all time. Never go ‘way.’
I asked whether he had taken a native wife.
‘No, no womans. I want get him nice Paumotu wife. Help make copla; make him big fambly. He no want.’
He had, however, imported a Chinese family — father, mother, two children, and an elderly relative of theirs who did his housework. Chan had brought them two years before, he said. The old man had a hut on the main island near Crichton. The others lived on a little island across the lagoon. There was no one else except the MammaRuau. She was still living and in good health. At least she had been a year ago.
‘What about letters,’ I asked, ‘and books, and papers? Does he receive many?’
‘Mebbe some book. One letta evely year. Always same place. No more.’
Chinamen living in exile are often lonely enough men, but even Chan seemed to wonder at this lack of correspondence. He spoke of it several times during the voyage and showed me the letter he was carrying out to Crichton. It was as impersonal in appearance as a bank note. The name and address of a London Trust Company was stamped on the envelope. I could imagine the nature of this one yearly communication from the outside world: ‘Dear Sir: — You will find attached, for your examination, the statement of your account for the year just closed. Very respectfully,’ and so forth. As I held this letter in my hand, a truer conception of the appalling nature of Crichton’s isolation came to me. He was like those men Matthew Arnold speaks of in his ‘Rugby Chapel’ — men who die without leaving a trace behind them,
Who or what they have been,
More than he asks what waves,
In the moonlit solitudes mild
Of the midmost Ocean, have swell’d,
Foam’d for a moment, and gone.
Certainly that is true of Crichton, and he is still living, in the full vigor of manhood. But beyond the borders of his own little physical world he has long been as good as dead and buried. There is Chan to think of him, and some clerk in a London banking-house, — once a year at least, when he sends him his statement of account, — myself, and no one else. I suppose this is really what has prompted me to write of him again. Crichton would not thank me for meddling, but it gives me a quite definite feeling of relief to know that a few others, reading this sketch, will share, momentarily at least, in the task of keeping the man alive. I have carefully guarded his anonymity, of course, as well as that of his island.
But to continue: we passed the northwestern extremity of Tanao, close in shore, between three and four in the afternoon. At that point the atoll is mostly barren reef washed over by the surf. There is but one small islet — an imaginative boy’s dream of an island to be shipwrecked on. Indeed, the bones of an old vessel lie there, high and dry above the reef, bleaching in the sun — all that remains from the wreck of the Madeleine. The island is just boy-size, not more than one hundred paces across either way. It is of clean coral sand, as level as a floor, with thick green bushes fringing it on the lagoon side. There are eight tall coconut palms, three in one clump and four in another, with one tree growing apart, holding its tuft of fronds far out over the surface of the lagoon. A pass goes through the reef at one side of the island, but it is too narrow to permit entrance to any craft larger than a skiff or a canoe. On that side an ancient pandanus tree throws a patch of deep shade on the sand. Well within the shelter of it was a thatch-roofed hut, open to the four winds; and I saw a rough-hewn bench facing seaward, with its back against the trunk of the tree.
‘Very likely Crichton comes here to fish,’I thought; but the place was deserted now. The sunshine, of that mellow golden quality of late afternoon, gilded the stems of the palms. I saw not even a sea bird there. Nothing moved save the trees bending to the wind and their shadows on the yellow sand.
We passed the islet all too quickly, then stood away from the reef to come in to the main island on the starboard tack. There are seven widely separated islands around the lagoon, which is five miles across in the widest part. From the mainmast crosstrees I had them all in view. Three were on the opposite side, and at that distance the trees seemed to be growing directly out of the water. Crichton lives on the largest of the seven, a fringe of land less than a mile long and some three hundred yards broad. With my glasses I searched the shore line without result until Chan called up to me, ‘You no see?'
I saw, plainly enough then, Crichton and the Mamma-Ruau, silting just within the border of shade at the upper slope of the beach, hidden momentarily by the sunlight-filtered smoke of the surf. He had on a pair of dark glasses, and for clothing only a soft-brimmed straw hat and a wisp of cloth about his loins. The old woman was in her best black dress and hat. Both were squatting, native fashion, elbows on knees, their chins resting on their hands. How many times I had seen them thus in my imagination! I could hardly credit the reality of the scene before me, it had appeared so often in my dreams. The Ruau was talking in an excited manner, pointing toward the schooner from time to time. Once I saw her take Crichton by the shoulders and turn him till he sat directly facing us.
The sea was fairly calm, here on the leeward side, but for all that the great swells seemed mountain high as they swept shoreward and toppled with a deafening crash over the ledge of the reef. We were carried across at terrific speed; the whaleboat shot down the broad slope of broken water and through the shallows, grounding almost at the point where Crichton and the Mamma-Ruau were sitting.
‘O vai tera? Chan? (Who is it? Chan?) ‘ Crichton called when he heard the keel grating and bumping over the coral.
‘Yes, yes!’ cried the old woman. ‘Don’t you believe me? It is Chan and the white man who first came here with you. Ia ora na orua!'
She shook our hands warmly, saying ’Ia ora na orua! (Health to you!)’ again and again. This kindly Polynesian greeting seems always to have the freshness of a phrase coined yesterday. The reason is, perhaps, that friends meet after long separation; after long and very often hazardous sea-voyages. They are in all truth glad to see each other again.
Mamma-Ruau, putting her hands on my shoulders, gazed long at me, searching my face feature by feature.
‘ Ua tae mai oe? (You have come?) ‘ she said, as though still in doubt that anyone from the outside world could, in reality, reach that lonely place. She had aged greatly in four years, but Crichton had not altered in the least, in so far as I could tell at first glance. He is a splendid type, physically, just over six feet, broad-shouldered, deepchested — he looked more than ever the athlete he is, in fact. The ghost of the smile I remembered curved his lips almost imperceptibly at times, and he spoke English in the same curious exotic way. His eyes were concealed by the smoked glasses.
‘You will forgive me for not recognizing you?’ he said. ‘Until recently I have never taken any precaution against the glare of the sun. It was very unwise, and the result is — well, I ‘m nearly blind.’
Mamma-Ruau, who was standing behind him, gave me a look of all but agonized appeal, as much as to say, ‘Don’t encourage him to talk of it!’
‘Rather a nuisance,’ he went on. ‘I may get over it, of course, but in nine months’ time I can’t say there has been any change for the better. Well, enough of that. Shall we go to the house? Luckily I know my way about, after four years. I could go anywhere, blindfold.’
I remembered the island as I had first seen it — a wilderness of brush, pandanus trees, and self-sown coconut palms. Now everything was clean and orderly, the palms thinned out to six or eight paces apart, so that one had charming views in every direction. A well-shaded road, bordered with shrubbery, led from the ocean beach to the lagoon. We followed it in silence. Having greeted each other, there seemed nothing more to say. Mamma-Ruau had gone on ahead. Chan remained at the beach to oversee the landing of some supplies.
At last, with a good deal of effort, I remarked, ‘You have not been idle here.’
‘No, there has been enough to do. I found that I needed some help at first. I had Chan bring me a dozen natives from another island. They stayed three months, clearing the land. They helped build my house, too.’
I had often tried to picture Crichton’s house. He had, I knew, the imagination to take full advantage of his exotic environment, and for all his years of wandering was still enough of an Englishman to be concerned about comfort. Nevertheless I was not prepared to find so spacious and homelike a dwelling. It stood on the lagoon beach, at the end of the road, and was raised about three feet above the ground, the open space beneath being concealed by shrubbery. The roof, of green thatch, was steeply pitched and extended low over a broad verandah. Crichton stopped at the foot of the steps. For a long moment he seemed to have quite forgotten me; then he said: —
‘I think I must be rather excited. I forgot to say good-bye to Chan. He never stops ashore unless his schooner is at anchor. Will you make yourself comfortable? You might look over the house if you care to.'
A clock with a ship’s-bell attachment, striking five as I entered the verandah, demanded immediate attention. ‘Odd,’ I thought, ‘having a clock here.’ But it would be a wise precaution, perhaps, in so lonely a place. Crichton would need to live by schedule, fill his days with self-imposed duties to be regularly performed. No doubt he did. The house gave evidence of his all but meticulous habits of mind, and of the strict obedience to his orders of his literalminded Chinamen. Settees and cushioned chairs were as carefully arranged as pieces in an upholsterer’s display window. The floors, oiled and polished, shone with a dull lustre and the straw mats were precisely placed. Four shelves of books ran the length of the inner wall of the verandah. I took the opportunity offered me in Crichton’s absence to make an examination of them. They had been classified and subclassified. Novelists, historians, poets, biographers, travelers, stood in the ranks of their contemporaries and in the immediate company, one would say, most congenial to them individually. There must have been fifteen hundred volumes in his library; nothing very recent, but all of them books to live with. The margins of the pages of those I looked into were covered with penciled notes and comments, and one could see what delight, what solace, Crichton had found in their companionship. Now that he was deprived of it — but that would not bear thinking about. It would be a calamity worse than death to a man of his tastes, in his position. One section of the library contained only books on Polynesia, everything important, surely, that had been written about the islands of the eastern Pacific. There were many philological works in this section and I remembered how interested Crichton had been in the study of the various island dialects, speculating, with this study as a basis, on the probable routes followed during the great Polynesian migrations.
On a top shelf, bare of books, were models of ancient sailing canoes, spears and war clubs of ironwood, coconut shells polished and carved with intricate designs, stone axes and taro mashers. The windward end of the verandah was enclosed with a wall of freshly braided palm fronds, and midway in it a section had been built to prop open outward. Crichton’s desk stood opposite this window space. The view from his chair was over an inlet from the lagoon, bordered with palms, through which now a greenish-golden sunset light sifted like impalpable dust. A passageway led through the centre of the house to a second verandah on the lagoon side. Three doors, latched open, along this passageway, disclosed spacious airy rooms, each of them prettily furnished as a combined bedroom and sitting-room. They contained precisely the same pieces of furniture, although the arrangement in each varied somewhat: a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a washstand, a reading-table holding a shaded lamp, two easy-chairs, and above the bed a shelf filled with books. These rooms, in keeping with the rest of the house, were immaculately clean, and the beds made up, ready for occupancy.
Returning to the front verandah I walked up and down, saying to myself, ‘ What a delightful spot! What an ideal home!’ conscious all the while of a feeling very like depression. I was at a loss to assign a cause for this unless it were the clock, ticking away with selfimportant industry as if it were the only one in existence. Within half an hour I had revised my opinion as to the wisdom of having a clock. The silence was too profound for any such noisy piece of furniture. I could all but hear the steady drip, drip of the minutes and the tiny splash they made as they fell into the sea of time past. Then I found myself listening for voices — of the wife who might have been there, of Crichton’s unborn children. It was that kind of house — much too large, it seemed to me, for one man, and much too homelike for spiritual comfort under those circumstances. One would have thought Crichton had built it for the very purpose of evoking ghostly presences; to shelter some ideal conception of a family which he preferred to the warm, living, imperfect reality. Or perhaps, not satisfied with the superficial aspects of a solitude which would have daunted most men, he meant his house to accentuate it, to remind him of its inviolability. Certainly he had succeded in building into it a personality as strange as his own. It seemed conscious of having been prepared for guests and to be awaiting them with the complacent assurance that they would never come.
I too waited — anything but complacently — for the return of my host, reproaching myself, now that it was too late, for having taken a welcome for granted. To be sure, I had been invited, but that was three years ago, and I had forgotten to ask Chan whether the invitation had ever been renewed. An hour passed and still I waited, sitting on the top step of the verandah as Crichton must have done times without number at that hour, looking down his empty roadway to the empty sea. The sun had set and the colorless light faded swiftly from the sky. The fronds of the palms, swaying gently in the last faint tremors of the breeze, came gradually to rest. In the trancelike calm of earth and air I was conscious again of the beating of the surf on the reef. Now it was measured, regular, as though it were the pulsing of the blood through the mighty heart of Solitude; now it seemed the confused roar of street traffic from a thousand cities mingled with the voices of all humankind, flowing smoothly, in soundless waves, in narrowing circles, over the rim of the world, to break audibly at last on this minute ringed shoal in the farthermost sea of silence.
After listening to that lonely sound for at least another hour, I began to feel a little uncomfortable. What had happened to my host, and where was the Mamma-Ruau? I knew that she had her own little house farther down the beach, and that Crichton, with his strict ideas of propriety, would not ask her to dine with us. Nevertheless I thought it likely that she would be about somewhere. At last I saw a glimmer of light along the passageway leading to the lagoonside verandah. A little while afterward a gong was sounded. ‘That means dinner, evidently,’ I thought. ‘Perhaps Crichton has returned through the groves and along the beach and is waiting for me.’
I have but mentioned, thus far, Crichton’s lagoonside verandah. It is semicircular in shape and extends over shoal water to the very brink of a magnificent coral precipice. Standing at the edge of it one looks down into a submarine garden of exquisite beauty. Gorgeously colored fish of the most fantastic shapes swim lazily in and out of the caves which honeycomb the precipice, and from the floor of the lagoon great coral mushrooms arise, spreading their symmetrical branches into water as clear as air. The verandah is roofed with canvas stretched over bamboo poles, and this covering is so constructed that it may be drawn back, by means of ropes, against the wall of the house.
Emerging from the passageway I gave an inward gasp of astonishment at the beauty and the strangeness of the scene before me. It was now deep night. The verandah lay open to the sky, and the reflections of the stars in the water were so bright and clear it was easy to imagine that the little house was adrift, motionless, in the innermost depths of space. But what first attracted my attention was a table, set for one, holding a shaded lamp; and standing beside it a withered ancient Chinaman as small and frail of body as a delicate child of ten. He was dressed in a clean cotton undershirt and a black pareu, and carried a napkin over his arm in quite the approved fashion. He made a striking and memorable picture, standing with his back to the starlit lagoon. The lamplight filled the caverns of his eyes with shadow, and the black pareu blended so perfectly with the surrounding darkness that he looked only half a Chinaman suspended motionless above two bare feet. I bade him good evening and inquired for Crichton, but his only reply was to draw back my chair and wait for me to be seated. When I had done so I noticed a piece of folded notepaper tucked under the edge of my plate. It was a message from Crichton. ‘I am sorry,’ it read, ‘that I cannot join you at dinner, and as Chan expects to sail early to-morrow afternoon it may be that I shall not see you again before you go. Ling Foo, my Chinaman, will look after you. Please believe that you are welcome here and feel free to use my house as though it were your own.’
Ling Foo had gone to the kitchen while I was puzzling over this message. At any rate when I looked up again he was standing at my elbow, holding a covered dish which certainly he had not been holding a moment before. I would not have been surprised, after he had set it down in front of me, to have seen him conjure it away again with his napkin. It required an effort of the imagination to think of that voiceless wraith of a man, who moved as soundlessly as a shadow, concerning himself in the usual manner with anything so substantial and matter of fact as food. Most of it was out of tins, but it had been admirably disguised in the preparation. I wish that I might have paid his art as a cook the tribute it deserved; but it was Ling’s fate, apparently, to spend his days performing useless labor: airing empty rooms, making up unoccupied beds, sweeping dustless floors. He carried back the scarcely tasted food as though he had quite expected this. Then, having lighted a lamp in the room where I was to sleep and another on the front verandah, he again vanished, and that is the last I ever saw of him.
‘Please believe that you are welcome here.’ The words kept repeating themselves in my mind. I tried to believe it, but under the circumstances nothing seemed less likely than that Crichton meant me to accept this absentee welcome in good faith. I had seen the copra, stacked on the beach, ready for loading. What other work could there be to do which would occupy his time until after our departure? No, he did not want to see me, that was plain. I wished I had not come; I wished with all my heart that I had not come.
Having come, there was nothing for it but to remain. Impossible to return to the schooner. When I had last seen her, just after sunset, she was at least three miles offshore. Chan had no engines and would stand well out to sea during the night. I smiled, rather lugubriously however, at the thought of my anxiety to leave an island I had dreamed of with such longing during four years; but those dreams had been concerned with the Crichton I knew, or thought I knew, on board the Caleb Winship. Now, going back in thought over the details of that first voyage to his island, I realized how meagre my knowledge of him really was. Although we had been much in each other’s company, our companionship had been a curiously silent one for the most part. Often for days together we scarcely spoke. I was new to the islands then, and could hardly believe that places with names and fixed positions on charts could so far surpass my most sanguine expectations. They could have thrown glamour over one’s relations with the most prosaic of fellow passengers, and, whatever else he may have been, Crichton was not prosaic. The mere fact of his searching out so lonely an island offered sufficient proof to the contrary. Once — it was the only occasion when he even approached making a confidence — he had told me that he hoped to find Tanao a place where he could do his thinking and writing undisturbed. ‘What sort of thinking?’ I had wanted to ask, but one could hardly venture so intimate a question without further encouragement, which he did not give.
At another time, breaking an all-day silence, he had said, ‘I wish I had come out here years ago. They appeal to the imagination, don’t you think — all these islands?’ That struck me as a happy expression of one’s feeling about them, for we were then in the very heart of the Archipelago, with islands all round us, and yet they did not seem real. The glimpses I had into his mind were all of this fragmentary nature, and they were as brief as they were rare. I had taken the rest of him for granted. Even though I were justified, then, in doing so, who could say what might have happened to him meanwhile — what changes had taken place during four appallingly lonely years? I was not hopeful. One might love solitude at a distance and long to know it intimately; but the heart of it was too vast, surely, for one poor human waif to snuggle against with impunity, or to attempt to explore in search of the secret of its peace. I tried to put myself in Crichton’s place, and succeeded so well — or so ill, I could not be sure which it was — that I came back with a feeling of immense relief to my proper identity; but as a result of the attempt I could understand how one might so completely lose touch with humankind that the mere thought of renewing it, even for a moment, would be unendurable.
It was not yet nine o ‘clock — too early to think of going to bed. I returned to the front verandah to examine at leisure some charts and sketches — Crichton’s own handiwork evidently — which hung on the wall above the bookshelves. There was a plan of his house, another of the main island, and a third of the atoll as a whole. I amused myself by making a rough sketch of them in my notebook. Some of his drawings were extremely interesting. One had for title, ‘When the Seas Go Dry.’ It was a sketch in crayon of a number of the atolls of the Low Archipelago as they would appear from the ocean floor if the waters should recede. Immensely high mountains, in the shape of truncated cones, were shown, with walls in many places falling sheer from heights of ten to fifteen thousand feet to the general level of the surrounding country. It was a vividly imaginative impression and true to fact at the same time. One could see that it had been drawn from a chart of the islands with its data of soundings, which hung beside it. Another similar sketch showed Tanao alone, with two pigmy figures standing in the valley below, as they do in old engravings of mountain scenery, one of them pointing to the cliffs towering above them. Having examined the drawings, I turned again to the library, taking volumes at random from the shelves and reading a page here and there. Many of Crichton’s books were in my own library, not a few in the same editions. It gave me an uncanny feeling to find it so. I seemed to have entered his mind, to have assumed his personality whether I would or no, and this sense of identity was intensified when I came upon marked passages which I too had thus noted in some of my own books. One of these was in a volume of Shelley’s Lyrics and Minor Poems, which fell open of itself to Shelley’s preface to ‘Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude.”There was no marginal comment on the page, but the paragraph, underscored in pencil, was as follows: —
Among those who attempt to exist without human sympathy, the pure and tenderhearted perish through the intensity and passion of their search after its communities, when the vacancy of their spirit suddenly makes itself felt. All else, selfish, blind, and torpid, are those unforeseeing multitudes who constitute, together with their own, the lasting misery and loneliness of the world. Those who love not their fellow beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave.
The whole of the preface had a very special interest for me under those circumstances. As for ‘Alastor’ itself, I had not read it in several years, and it occurred to me that I could never have a more favorable opportunity than this for a sympathetic appreciation of the poem, if not for its fullest enjoyment. Therefore, drawing my chair close to the lamp, I began, and at the second stanza started reading aloud that I might better sense the sonorous beauty of the words: —
Favor my solemn song, for I have loved
Thee ever, and thee only; I have watched
Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,
And my heart ever gazes on the depth
Of thy deep mysteries. I have made my bed
In charnels and on coffins, where black death
Keeps record of the trophies won from thee,
Hoping to still these obstinate questionings
Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost,
Thy messenger, to render up the tale
Of what we are. In lone and silent hours,
When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness . . .
I had been reading for a quarter of an hour, I should say, sometimes aloud, sometimes silently, when I heard from the adjoining room a slight but very distinct noise: a drumming with the fingers against the wall just back of my head. I don’t believe I have ever been so curiously startled in my life before. A cry, a crash of breaking glass, a pistol fired behind my back, might have produced a more violent shock, but nothing like such an eerie one. I got up at once, blew out the light, tiptoed into my room at the other end of the verandah, and closed the door. The reaction was purely instinctive, as a child’s would be upon hearing at night a sound it could not understand. Theoretically, I should then have jumped into bed and hidden under the coverlet, but instinct did not carry me so far as that. I knew well enough, of course, that Crichton was in the other room. That is to say, I knew it after hearing the noise. Previous to that, his presence in the house had not so much as occurred to me. The fact of his sending a message had given me a sense of his remoteness. I seemed to have taken it for granted that he was far away, across the lagoon perhaps, on one of the other islands — anywhere but under his own roof.
For some time I stood listening, in the middle of the floor; then, hearing no further sound, I sat in darkness by the open window and gave myself up to the most disquieting reflections. I winced at the thought of having read aloud. Had I set to work deliberately, maliciously, to devise for Crichton some exquisite form of torment, I doubted whether I could have hit upon one more likely to prove successful. Deprived through his blindness of the enjoyment of his books, I had reminded him what a deprivation it was. Accustomed during four years to all but unbroken silence, he had been compelled to listen to the monotonous intonation of my voice. ‘Alastor’ might very well be the last poem in the world so lonely a man would care to hear; and he must have heard distinctly, every word, for only a thin board partition separates the verandah from the rooms behind it. At last, irritated beyond endurance, he had let me know of his presence.
Thus I reasoned myself into a very uncomfortable frame of mind. I was tempted to go to Crichton’s room; to make my apologies for having disturbed him — for having come to Tanao at all. What would have happened, I wonder, had I done so? Perhaps I then missed the greatest opportunity I am ever likely to have to be of service to a man in dire need — whether he knew it or not — of human companionship, of human sympathy. And yet it is very doubtful that I would have known how to offer it or he to accept it. I might have succeeded only in creating a situation so embarrassing as to be ludicrous. At the moment — heaven knows! — I felt that I had been sufficiently meddlesome without making further advances. Then, too, his method of warning me of his presence had something scarcely human about it. He had drummed twice, very lightly, with the tips of his fingers, and after a moment of silence had repeated the sound. It is hard to convey in words a sense of the uncanny effect it produced in me. If he had pounded on the wall with his fist, or if he had shouted, ‘In Heaven’s name! Stop that infernal mumbling, will you?’ I should have felt that he was within reach, so to speak. I should have felt a welcome flush of anger at churlishness which even his blindness could hardly excuse. As the matter stood I was awed rather than angry at the strangeness of his behavior, and it seemed best to remain in my room, wearing out the rest of the night as unobtrusively as possible.
But although Ling Foo had turned the coverlet invitingly back, I did not go to bed. Instead, I sat by the window listening to the clock on the verandah striking the half-hours and the hours, each of them a little eternity in itself. I dozed off at last, to be awakened out of uneasy slumber by the crowdng of a cock. It was a welcome sound, for I thought day was at hand; but this was far from being the case. Paumotan chickens, like the Paumotans themselves, are seminocturnal in their habits. Roosters greet the rising of the moon as well as of the sun, and I have often heard them break into a prolonged ecstasy of crowing, for no reason at all, in the middle of a starlit night. One can hardly blame them, for the nights are enchantingly beautiful; but the sound of persistent crowing may be extremely annoying if close at hand, and this cock was perched in some shrubbery just in front of the verandah. A late moon was rising, which may have been the cause of his outburst. However that may be, he kept it up. With a premonitory flapping of wings he shattered the silence time after time, waiting with seeming intent for it to heal that he might shatter it again the more effectively. I endured it as long as I could; then climbed noiselessly out of the window, that I might not have to pass Crichton’s room, and walked down the lagoon beach, keeping well within the shadow of the trees.
The crowing stopped almost at once. I was in the mood to be half chagrined at this, and to take as an intentional affront the habitual action of the hermit crabs, — there were hundreds of them along the beach, — snapping into their shells at my approach and closing their doors behind them. the land crabs too showed hostility in their own fashion, holding up their claws in menace, scurrying away on either side, and dodging into their burrows as though fleeing a pestilence. ‘I’m having a strange welcome all round!’ I thought. And yet the Mamma-Ruau had been friendly. I could not doubt the sincerity of her welcome, and the fact of her disappearance immediately after our landing was easily accounted for: she had old-fashioned ideas — which Crichton, I knew, encouraged — as to the propriety of women sharing uninvited in the companionship of men. No doubt she had gone straight to her house to wait until she should be sent for.
Her little hut, on the lagoon beach a five-minute walk from Crichton’s place, seemed as essential a feature of the landscape as the old kahaia tree growing near by. All was silent there. A fire of coconut husks was smouldering on the earthen floor of the back kitchen. I knocked lightly on the doorpost and, receiving no reply, looked in. The reflections from the moonlit water made the room almost as light as day. A wooden chest for clothing stood against a wall and a sewing machine in the corner. That was all the room contained in the way of furniture except for some shell necklaces and hat wreaths and some beautifully formed branches of coral hanging on the walls. The Mamma-Ruau lay on a mat, her hands palm to palm, tucked under her cheek. She was sleeping so peacefully that I had not the heart to waken her therefore I slipped quietly away and sat down for a time under the kahaia tree.
Here Crichton and I had had our first meal together upon our arrival four years ago. I recalled the story the Mamma-Ruau had told us that evening of the spirit of the last of her children,— a son of twenty,— who had been drowned while fishing outside the reef of the neighboring islet. It appeared to her but rarely, she said, and always in the form of an enormous dog, so large that it could have picked up her little house in its mouth, like a basket. But it never offered to harm her. She would come upon it — only at the full of the moon — lying on the lagoon beach, its enormous head resting on its paws. It would regard her mournfully for a long time, beating its tail on the ground. Then it would get up, take a long drink of salt water, and start at a lope down the beach. Soon it would break into a run, gathering tremendous speed until, reaching the end of the island, it would make a flying spring and she would last see it high in air, clearly outlined against the moonlit sky, crossing, in one gigantic leap, the two-mile gap to the island where her son had been drowned.
The story had made a deep impression upon me, and the simplicity, the earnestness of her manner of telling it convinced me of the realness of the apparition to the Mamma-Ruau. She was pure heathen and believed in all sorts of spirits, good and bad. I was glad for her sake that she had missed contact with the itinerant missionaries — Seventh-day Adventists and Latterday Saints — who wander through the Low Archipelago from time to time, seeking converts. They would have destroyed what beliefs she had without giving her anything she could honestly accept to replace them. Indeed her grandmother, a Marquesan, had been converted to Christianity by some of the early missionaries; but evidently she had not been at all happy in her new faith, for she had counseled both her children and her grandchildren to have nothing to do with it. She had never been sure what to believe and shortly before her death at Tanao, many years ago, had left instructions that a little stone tiki (idol), which she had always kept, was to be set at the head of her grave and a slab of coral with a cross carved on it at the foot. I had seen this grave at the time of my last visit. It is in the family buryingground at the far end of the island. As day was still long distant I decided to go there again and look at it by moonlight.
I doubt whether there is a cemetery in all the Pacific — except at the bottom of it — more impressively lonely than the one at Tanao. It lies close to the ocean beach where, owing to the contour of the fringing reef, the sea breaks with unusual violence; and the moonlight-silvered spray, drifting slowly over the land, makes one think of an endless procession of ghosts. There must be fifteen or twenty graves in all, most of them now in a sadly neglected condition, overgrown with shrubs and bushes. I found the grandmother’s grave. The little idol, its hands folded across its stomach, seemed to be gazing with stony-eyed hostility at the near-by cross. But what interested me most was another grave, freshly prepared, ready for occupancy. It had been dug to a depth of five or six feet and carefully roofed over with sheets of corrugated iron to keep out the rain. A drainage trench surrounded it, and close by were stacked a number of large flat stones, chiseled square and the edges beveled, with which to cover over the grave at last. The headstone was ready to be set in place, and on it was carved the Mamma-Ruau’s name, ‘Fainau a Hiva.’ I was not greatly surprised at this, for it. is not unusual for Paumotans to make preparations for death when they know it cannot be far distant. They have no dread of it. Indeed, in old age they seem rather to welcome the approach of death and make all ready for their last long sleep. The Mamma-Ruau was merely following the custom of her people; but she was too frail, I knew, to have done this work herself. Crichton must have helped her with it, and a little shiver of dismay went through me when I saw how thoroughly and painstakingly he had set about the business. It struck me that he must have found zest in it, as though he were thinking, ‘It won’t be long now. I ‘ll soon have the place to myself.’
I stood for a time watching the great seventh waves crashing over the reef. The ground trembled under the ceaseless impact, and the roar of broken water was loud enough, one would think, to disturb even the profound repose of the dead. Crichton would be lying here eventually if he held fast to his voluntary exile. But that would be years hence. Meanwhile, supposing he were to go completely and permanently blind ? The possibility must have occurred to him often. Walking slowly back along the ocean beach, I again tried to persuade myself that it was my duty to go to him at once, to urge him to come away with us. His blindness gave me an excellent pretext. I could urge the need of his going to England or America for expert advice and treatment. Quickening my pace, I crossed the island to the lagoon beach, and if I had been live minutes earlier who can say what might have happened? Perhaps — but idle conjecturing is futile.
What did happen was this: When I was within fifty yards of the house that cock started crowing again as though it. had been waiting all this while to warn Crichton of the return of his unwelcome guest. The shrill cry stopped me as effectively as a stone wall would have done. While I stood there, doubtful as to what I should do, Crichton himself emerged from the darkness of the verandah, walked down the steps, and groped among the bushes beside them. He was lost to view for a moment; then I saw that he had the rooster under his arm, and he came down the beach directly toward me. I was standing in shadow, against a tree. He passed so close that I could have touched him with my outstretched hand, and he stopped not half a dozen paces distant. He was not now wearing his dark glasses and his eyes had a vacant expressionless look.
He stood for a moment gently stroking the bird; then, speaking in a halfbantering, half-aggrieved tone, ‘You should n’t have made such an infernal racket,’ he said. ‘And just under my window too! It is n’t the first time either; and you know you ‘ve been warned. Now I ‘m going to punish you — a quite serious little punishment. You won’t like it in the least.’
With that he took the fowl firmly by the legs, one in each hand, and very slowly and deliberately tore it apart. I could plainly hear the smothered rending of the flesh. To say that it was a horrible sight is to say nothing at all, but more horrible still was the expression on Crichton’s face. I shall not attempt to describe it. The cock gave one loud squawk, all but human in its quality of terror and pain, but Crichton soon silenced it. He bashed it again and again against the trunk of a tree until it was only a misshapen mass of bloody feathers, then threw it into the lagoon. His bare chest, as well as his face and hands, was spattered with blood. Having washed carefully, he dried his body with his pareu and sat down on the beach in such a position that he was turned half toward me with the moon shining full in his face. I would not venture to guess how long he sat thus, quite motionless, his eyes closed, as though he were deep in reverie.
At last the shadow of a frown darkened his features and he said in a passionate half-whisper, ‘Why did you come? Did you think I was lonely?’
For two or three seconds I was convinced that he had spoken to me direct, conscious of my presence, and it was only the shock of astonishment that prevented me from giving myself away. But his air of complete self-absorption reassured me. It was plain that he thought himself alone.
' Ah, my friend,’he went on, ‘you are too kind! Too considerate by far! Your companionship — your conversation — oh, charming! No doubt! No doubt! But you will forgive a solitary man if he deprives himself —'
He broke off and was again long silent, sitting with his arms crossed on his knees, his forehead resting against them. I was compelled to stand absolutely motionless. He could have heard the least sound I might have made, Finally he raised his head wearily and, speaking in a low, broken, heartsick voice, ‘I don’t know what’s to come,’ he said; ‘I don’t know.’ A moment later he rose and walked slowly back to the house.
I never saw him again. Neither he nor the Mamma-Ruau appeared at the beach the following morning. I went out to the schooner with the first boatload of copra and, being dead tired after my all-night vigil, turned into my bunk and slept till late afternoon. When I came on deck we were headed westward and Tanao was only a faint bluish haze far to windward. Chan, the least inquisitive of men, asked no questions as to my stay ashore. In fact, now that we had left the island, it seemed to have dropped completely out of his thoughts.
But I was to hear of Crichton once more. It was at an island four hundred miles from his retreat. We had stopped there for copra and spent one night at anchor in the lagoon close to the village. Some natives had come aboard to yarn with the sailors. I was lying on deck looking at the stars, paying little attention to their conversation until I heard Tanao mentioned.
One voice said, ‘Pupure, the old woman calls him.’ (That was Crichton’s native name.)
’Ah É ! (Ah yes!)’ replied a second. ‘Tera popaa — tera taata moé (That white man — that forgotten one).’