UPON returning last summer from a long sojourn among the islands of the eastern Pacific, I decided to break my journey across the continent at Prairie Hills, a little town in Iowa where my aunt Harriet Mason lives. It is a homely sort of place, at the end of a branch line of railroad, and owing lo its isolated position and the conservatism of its long-settled inhabitants it still has the aspect and the feel of the eighteen-nineties. My aunt’s house is of a yet earlier period. It is a large square brick dwelling surmounted by a glassed-in cupola, with a view to the westward over a dozen miles of upland prairie. A wide hallway, cool on the hottest days of summer, divides the lower floor and, as all the rooms give on it, the mingled fragrance from all of them pervades it — a fragrance of dried rose-leaves, of Fears’ soap, of pine-needle sofa pillows, of Civil War Memoirs and bound volumes of Harper’s Magazine. Many a time, in places thousands of miles distant, I have been aware of that perfume, which is composed of scores of ingredients too subtle to define. To breathe it again in reality was almost to doubt the passage of time. I rapped gently at the screen door and, receiving no reply, walked through to the back porch. Aunt Harriet was sitting on the steps, shelling peas into a salad-bowl.
Two hours later we sat down to supper. There was delectable fried chicken, mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, corn on the cob, green peas in cream, beet salad, apple, grape, and currant jelly, hot rolls, strawberry shortcake, and iced tea. ‘A pick-up supper,’ Aunt Harriet called it. I had dreamed of those pick-up suppers often enough when eating coconuts and fish on lonely islands in the South Seas. I hated to hurry through this one, but there was no help for it. There was to be a meeting at the church of the Foreign Mission Society and, as of old, my aunt was in charge of the arrangements.
We entered by way of the Sunday School room, where I met the minister, Mr. Williams, and the visiting missionary, a thin, sallow-faced man just returned from New Guinea. He was dressing several of the local young people in the ceremonial costumes of the New Guinea savages: headdresses of brilliant feathers, garments of dyed grass, anklets of human hair, bracelets and necklaces of pearl-shell, sharks’ teeth, and brightly colored seeds. They were very self-conscious and plainly dreading the moment when they must appear before the audience.
‘Isn’t it awful,’ whispered Aunt Harriet, ‘to think of human beings getting themselves up like that? And think of it, dear! They have souls to be saved just as we have! Mr. Robinson’ (the missionary) ‘has saved hundreds of them. He’s lived in New Guinea for nearly fifteen years! He’s doing a wonderful work — wonderful! ‘
She was busy for half an hour helping with the preparations. Then we took seats in the rear of the church. On the platform above the pulpit a large map of New Guinea had been hung. It was colored a deep and uniform black, save for narrow fringes here and there along the coast. These were dazzling white to show the progress of missionary enterprise on that immense island-continent.
The church was crowded. People were seated in the aisles, standing in the vestibules and at the open windows. After the invocation the congregation sang that old militant hymn: —
His blood-red banner streams afar — Who follows in His train?
It was splendidly sung, everyone joining in. Aunt Harriet’s eyes shone as she added her clear strong voice to the others. The missionary, standing very straight, gazed in rapt listening attention over the heads of the audience. At the conclusion of the hymn he stepped forward, without introduction, and in a quiet, impressive voice and manner he began: —
‘My friends, there are those who believe, or profess to believe, that the spirit of the Christian religion is dead. The same view was held a generation, a century, five centuries ago. In every age, in every land, there are doubters, faint-hearts, and there will always be. But I am here to say — and I believe it with all the strength of my soul — t hat the Son of God goes forth to war at this moment, as triumphantly as He did in the time of the Apostles themselves. A kingly crown to gain! To gain? In countless dark places of the earth it has been gained to the everlasting glory of the Church. But how mighty are the hosts arrayed against us! How farflung is the battle-line of the great army of Christ! I have come, this evening, to tell you of one of the farthest outposts of that conquering army; to speak, not so much of what has been done there, but of what remains to do.’
Then in the same simple, deeply earnest manner he told the story of his years among the savages — of the dangers, the hardships and privations, of the opportunities for service. He engaged one’s interest, one’s respect, by the transparent sincerity revealed in every word and gesture, every intonation of his voice. I could see that he lived only for his lonely mission-station among the coastal swamps; that he would go on living for it, and die for it at last, conscious of a life well spent. He was in the midst of his narrative when there was a slight stir in the crowd at the rear of the church. A slip of paper was passed from hand to hand to my aunt Harriet. She read it hastily.
‘Mrs. Wintersteen is very ill,’ she whispered. ' They want me to come. I must go at once.’ I knew what a disappointment it must be to her to miss the rest of the meeting, but there was not a moment’s hesitation. No one ever called on Aunt Harriet in vain.
‘You need n’t have come, dear,’ she said, a little reproachfully, as we were walking toward the Wintersteens’ house. ‘I don’t see how you could! Were n’t you interested? ‘
‘Very much,’ I replied. ‘But I don’t like to stay indoors on such a night, and remember, Aunt Harriet — this is my first visit here in ten years.’
‘Yes, I know.’
We walked in silence for a little way, and when I left her at the Wintersteen gate, ‘Now go right home and don’t bother about me any more,’ she said. ‘You must be tired and sleepy after your long journey. Your room’s all ready, and there’s some nice fresh milk and a cherry pie in the ice box.’
After exploring the ice box I went out on the back porch. The view from that vantage point is beautiful at all times, particularly so by moonlight on a summer night. A short distance beyond the house the hill slopes steeply to the densely wooded bottom-lands along the Chaquaqua River, and on the farther side the prairie stretches away to an horizon, distant and gently undulating, like an horizon at sea.
The night, was very still. June bugs droned by and fireflies glimmered through the currant bushes and around the peony beds. The frogs were in full chorus along the river, and a whippoorwill was calling from the wood-lot. I stretched out in the hammock, meaning to pass in review fragmentary periods of boyhood; but instead my thoughts turned to my recent wanderings in the South Seas. The missionary was responsible for that, with his talk of New Guinea and the dark places of the earth. The islands 1 had visited in the eastern Pacific had been called dark places, too, not many years ago. Now, doubtless, they are shown in purest white on the military maps of the evervictorious army with the red banner. And yet it was curious to think that at the time when my Aunt Harriet’s father, whom I could vaguely remember, was felling trees for his first logcabin at Prairie Hills, the inhabitants of most of those islands were still heathen. ‘There are men living to-day,’ I thought, ‘who must have been carried as babies in arms to missionary meetings where funds were being raised to Christianize those very places.’ What vast changes had taken place in the Pacific in less than a century! Now the blood-red banner streamed beyond horizons far to the westward. Supposing that within another fifty or seventyfive years the vanguard of that great army should overtake the rear guard on the other side of the world — what would they do then? Perhaps the eager pioneers would be appalled at the realization that there were no more heathen lands to conquer. Some, perhaps, would go on through sheer force of habit, sheer necessity. Others would turn and, marching slowly back over old battlefields, would look about them, noting the changes which had taken place. Would they be satisfied in every case? Would they speak as freely then of victories gained ‘to the everlasting glory of the Church’?
It was an interesting subject for speculation. I had seen some of their ancient battlefields during my recent wanderings. The recollection of one of them in particular was made the more vivid by a burst of martial music which just then broke the stillness of the night. Evidently the missionary had finished his address. The congregation was singing the closing hymn. It was ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’
When I first saw the island I had been traveling for several weeks on a small schooner whose captain and owner is one of the few independent traders left in that part of the Pacific. We had gone from island to island and from group to group, picking up a few sacks of copra or pearl-shell, a parcel of vanilla beans — anything in the way of cargo which might be found at the more remote, sparsely populated places. One evening, the wind coming fair from the southeast, a course was laid for Taputea.
‘ We might as well go up there now as later,’ the captain said. ‘I’ve got some mail for Mr. Cowden. I expect he’s wondering what’s become of it.’
‘ Who’s Mr. Cowden? ‘ I asked.
‘He’s a professor, a countryman of yours. Been coming to Taputea off and on for twenty years. Sometimes he stays for as long as a year, studying crabs or snails, I forget which it is. They’re going through some queer kind of evolution, he says. But Mr. Cowden’s all right. I’ve known him since the first time he came out here.’
At dawn, two days later, we could just make out the land, a faint bluish triangle showing above the horizon every time we rose to the swell. It was the peak of Tanifa, the highest mountain on the island, the captain informed me.
‘ It is n’t often you have that view,* he added. ‘ We’re still about sixty miles ofl. We ‘ll be at anchor to-night if the wind holds.'
All day, from a perch aloft, I watched the land emerge, changing color as the light changed. At sunset we were close enough to see the surf breaking against the cliffs which rose perpendicularly in many places to heights of more than a thousand feet. Above the cliff’s grassy plateaus sloped gently toward the mountains, whose jagged peaks rose clear of a level film of cloud. We coasted along, close inshore, past several deep valleys filled with purple shadow, and at length, rounding a headland, we entered the most beautiful harbor I had ever seen.
It was about half a mile wide, completely landlocked, with portals of sheer rock to seaward, and a broad sandy beach around the inner border. The valley itself, as nearly as I could make out, was of great depth and filled with trees and dense bush. The houses of the settlement were hidden for the most part, but I had glimpses of a few of them — an upper balcony with pillared arches, a diminutive churchspire, the white wall of a warehouse. Soon they were merged in the gathering darkness. No lights were to be seen, and the only sound I heard was the plaintive bleating of goats far up in the mountains.
An awning was stretched over the main boom. I placed my deck chair under it and was watching the last light fading from the sky when the captain joined me. Neither of us spoke for some time. Finally he said: —
‘ Well — what do you think of Taputea? ‘
‘It seems a very lonely place,’ I replied. ‘One would think the arrival of a schooner would be quite an event here. Where are all the natives — asleep? ‘
‘Yes, that’s it,’ he said in his gentle drawling voice. ‘They’re all sleeping in the bosom of Abraham.’
Of a sudden he heaved his immense bulk out of his chair and stood by the rail, looking toward the land.
‘Lonesome? I should think it is! I hate to come up here in these days. Too bad you could n’t have seen Taputea forty-five years ago. Even then it was finished, only I did n’t realize it. The first time I came was in seventyeight. I was twenty, and Taputea was the first South Sea Island I’d ever seen. We came in about this time in the evening, and long before we ‘d rounded that point dozens and dozens of natives came swimming off to us. I can’t begin to tell you what a fine lot they were! Since then I’ve seen every kind of native in the Pacific, but none of ‘em could hold a candle to these. But I remember as we were coming in to the anchorage Captain Pritchard — old George Pritchard, the man I named this vessel after — told me just about what I’ve been telling you. “This place is done for,” he said. “You ought to have seen it twenty years ago.” Very likely some other skipper told him the same thing twenty years before that. I’d like to have been the first white man that ever saw the place, back in the old days.
‘The worst of it was,’ he continued, ‘that all through these islands the first white men were nearly always missionaries. I’ve got no use for that tribe! I suppose it’s because I’ve had to carry so many back and forth. I’ve heard too many songs of Zion rising over the deep. Litt le they cared about the old days! What they wanted was the New Jerusalem, with all the inhabitants dressed in white trousers and black Mother Hubbards, going to prayer meeting with Bibles under their arms. They meant well, I suppose, but Lord deliver me from your well-meaning people! He didn’t deliver these poor heathen. You can see what’s happened — they’re all dead. When I first came there were still three or four hundred living in this one valley. Now I could take all that’s left aboard my schooner and still have room to spare.’
‘ But are n’t you a little unfair in blaming this on the missionaries?’
‘Not at. all! Not the least bit! You remember the old song: —
With wisdom from on high,
Shall we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
That’s the missionary spirit! It always has been and it always will be. They ‘ll save your soul if they have to kill you to do it! They believe there’s only one lamp of life and that they’ve got it; so they snuff yours out.
‘I said just now that I could take all the people there are left in this valley aboard my schooner and have room to spare. It’s a fact; I could. Do you know how many there are? Eighteen, and five of those are white. There’s Mr. Cowden; old La Motte, the government agent; Rudge, the Protestant missionary; Father Gilbert, the Catholic; and Sister Theresa at the convent. The rest are natives, all in a state of grace except two — an old man and woman that live a good way up the valley. They ‘re pure heathen. The missionaries have been trying to save them for years, but they’ve had no luck. More power to that old couple! If ever they give in — well, Mr. Cowden will have to find someone else to bring him his mail. I ‘ll never come to Taputea again. Hello! There’s a light. That’ll be Mr. Cowden.’
He walked to the companionway.
‘Tihoti! We’ll have kaikai on deck this evening; and fetch up those sacks of mail out of my cabin.’
I waited with a good deal of curiosity to see this lonely man who had spent the better part, of twenty years at Taputea, ‘studying crabs or snails.’ He hailed us from a distance and came alongside, rowing vigorously. Having made fast his skiff, he clambered aboard with the agility of a boy. He was about sixty, with a white moustache, thick white hair, and a deeply tanned, healthy skin.
‘Well, Captain,’ he said, ‘I thought you were never coming.’
Yes, we’re a little late, Professor. But you know how it is at this time of year — no wind. Until yesterday we have n’t made a fair day’s run the whole voyage. Meet my first-class passenger. He’s having a look round the islands. I was just telling him that he’s forty years too late.’
‘Later than that, much later. However, laputea has its attractions even to-day. I would n’t have believed it possible to become so attached to a place.’
Then, excusing himself, — ‘This is my first mail since last November,’ — he emptied on the deck the sacks we had brought him and made a hasty examination of their contents. I noticed that the bulk of his mail was made up of periodicals and parcels of books. These last he examined eagerly. ‘By Jove!' he exclaimed as he opened one of them. ‘Here ‘s a piece of luck! Captain, do you remember my speaking of Lieutenant Collingwood, who came to Taputea in the Resolute, in 1832? He wrote a Memoir of that visit.
I’ve had every bookseller in England and America searching for it, and here it is at last! Edwards, of London, discovered it. That man is a marvel! Give him time and I believe he could unearth the lost books of Livy!’
He was immensely pleased with his good fortune, and talked of it all through supper. He now had everything, he said, which had been written about Taputea from the very earliest days.
‘Are there many volumes? ‘ I asked.
‘No, not a great many; thirty-odd, not counting the missionaries’ records. But they are all extraordinarily interesting.’
‘Well,’ said the captain, ‘I would n’t give you three ha’pence for all the missionaries have written.’
Mr. Cowden laughed.
‘You may have discovered,’ he said to me, ‘that the captain is a little violent on the subject of missionaries? Strange, is n’t it, that traders nearly always are? They could n’t have made a living anywhere in the Pacific if missionaries had not prepared the way, and yet they see red the moment the name is mentioned.’
‘ You ‘re right, Professor, we certainly do — and with good reason. I ‘ve never held that traders were any great blessing to savages, but they believe in living and letting five, and that’s more than you can say for the best missionary that ever drew breath. Is n’t that so? Come now! What’s your honest opinion? ‘
‘On the question, “The Trader versus the Missionary as a Civilizing Influence”? It’s an old controversy, Captain. It seems hardly worth while reopening it in these days.’
‘Well, traders have one thing to their credit — a. sense of humor. When I look at Taputea and see what white men have done to it — traders, missionaries, all of us together, in the name of God and the Higher Civilization — I could laugh if it was n’t so downright tragical. But take old Rudge or Father Gilbert; they’re still exhorting away and sending up prayers of thanksgiving that the heathen have all been saved. I’d hate to be left in this place with those two for company! How do you manage, Professor? ‘
‘You forget, Captain, that I’m not a trader. Missionaries are not my hereditary enemies. Rudge is n’t, perhaps, the sort of man I would choose for a companion, but Father Gilbert can be quite interesting if you can start him on matters outside religion.’
‘ How’s he getting on with his dictionary? ‘
‘ Oh, famously! He’s halfway through the letter K now.’
The captain laughed scornfully.
‘You know,’ he said, turning to me, ‘Father Gilbert has been writing his dictionary of the Taputean language for the last twenty-five years, and by the time he’s finished there ‘ll be no one left to speak it but himself, Mr. Cowden, and me.’
‘You ‘re forgetting Rudge, La Motte, and Sister Theresa. Well, Captain, I must be going. What are your plans? You ‘ll not be leaving at once, I hope? ‘
‘No. I want to take in a supply of firewood, and to-morrow afternoon I ‘ll give the sailors a run ashore. We ‘ll sail sometime Sunday morning, very likely.’
‘In that case, what about shore leave for the first-class passenger? Would you like to come?’ he added, turning to me. ‘There’s plenty of room at my house, and to-morrow you might enjoy a walk around the settlement.’
I accepted the invitation with pleasure. It was a warm starlit night, so profoundly still that long after we had left the ship I heard one of the sailors there singing softly to himself. We passed around the end of a ruined pier and entered a river with immense trees overarching it from either bank. Hardly a gleam of light came through the interlacing branches. Presently we brought up before a flight of stone steps descending into the water, where the skiff was made fast.
It was so dark there that I did not see the man seated at the top of the steps until Mr. Cowden switched on his flash-lamp. He was a native, a very old man, naked to the waist, and wearing a pair of knee-length cot ton drawers. His white hair was closely cropped, and a band of tatooing across his eyes had precisely the appearance of a mask. He rose as we approached, and stood leaning on a paddle. I noticed then that his whole body was covered with tatooing in curious and intricate designs. When Mr. Cowden spoke to him he made a barely perceptible gesture of assent by raising his eyebrows; otherwise one would have thought that he had not observed us at all, and as we passed he stood gazing sombrely over our heads toward the opposite bank of the river.
My host preceded me through an arched gateway opening into a garden overgrown with weeds. Just before we reached the house he stopped.
‘Has the captain told you of the old heathen Father Gilbert and Mr. Rudge have been trying to save for so many years? Well, that’s the man. He has no use for any of us, though he tolerates me, after a fashion, because I furnish him with tobacco. You should see his manner of acpepting my small favors, like a king receiving tribute from a petty prince. Jove! I feel petty, too, in his presence. You noticed his height? He is six feet four. Imagine this island in the old days filled with men of that stamp! ‘
He led the way then into a spacious two-story dwelling, with upper and lower balconies all round. It was in a sorry state of repair. Heavy wooden shutters hung askew; the pillars supporting the balconies were crumbling away, and large fragments of plaster had iallen from walls and ceilings.’ Mr. Cowden occupied three rooms on the upper floor. These had been comfortably furnished, and were in the agreeable state of disorder of most bachelor establishments. When the lamps had been lighted my host sorted over his mail.
‘I’ll not bother with this to-night,’ he said. ‘ I ‘ve only three or four letters to get off — plenty of time to-morrow; but if you don’t mind I’ll just glance through this volume of Collingwood’s. Here are some magazines that might interest you.’
He lit his pipe and stretched out on a sofa with his book, while I turned over the pages of monthly and weekly reviews, some of which I had read in America long before. There were articles on religion, politics, social questions, criticisms ol novels and volumes of poetry, and in all of them I was conscious of a recurring note of cynicism, of disillusionment as plainly discernible as the melancholy laughter of a trombone in a ‘ Blues’ symphony. I made a brief extract in my notebook of one critical article — a review of an anthology of verse called American Poetry since 1900. ‘There are more than five hundred professional poets,’ the critic began, ‘practising their trade in America at this moment! So solemn a thought must make anyone pause.’ He then paused at length, to consider the contents of the volume, and having quoted and commented through two columns he came to the following conclusion: ‘Futility, vulgarity, overconsciousness of the one, blindness to the other — these are the two things that weigh upon our time. With no dreams left that they can agree to value deeply, men either hold dear what is cheap or turn in weariness from all. While we cast our voices across the Atlantic without having anything to say; while we fly across continents in a day without knowing what to do when we have arrived, this is the sort of literature we produce. Wireless and aeroplanes are the poetry of our age, mustard gas and high explosives the stage-properties of its tragic genius; but of memorials outlasting bronze we have raised ourselves but few.’
‘Well! ‘ said Mr. Cowden, closing his book with a sharp clap, ‘I’m going to have a rare time reading Collingwood. It’s interesting to find that he bears out what all the other explorers and travelers have said of the beauty of life at Taputea in the old days. It must have been so. It’s impossible to doubt it in the face of such unanimous opinion. Have you read anything about the island? ‘
‘One or two old books,’ I replied. ‘Otherwise my knowledge is limited to what I ‘ve seen and heard to-day.’
’I can imagine what you’ve heard, with respect to missionaries in particular. I often take issue with the captain on that question; but, you know, I think he’s right. I doubt whether there has ever been, elsewhere, a primitive race so utterly and quickly destroyed by the Christian Church as the inhabitants of this island. That’s a broad statement. One might talk until doomsday without convincing a churchman of the truth of it. Various causes contributed to the disappearance of these people, but there is not the slightest doubt that the missionaries bear by far the larger part of the responsibility.
‘You know, very likely, that the group to which Taputea belongs was among the last in Polynesia to resist the encroaching whites. The natives had an instinctive distrust of us from the first, more deeply ingrained than is often the case with a primitive people. When representatives of the first Mission Society attempted to establish themselves here, the result was utter failure. The two men chosen to work this virgin field were Israel Thompson, described in the record as a “ bootmaker,” and William Creel, “gentleman’s servant and since tin-worker.” Nearly the whole complement of saints on the mission ship were fanatical, narrow-minded, ignorant people, with an appalling conviction of the sacredness of their cause. The natives would have nothing to do with them, and small wonder, for they were a proud, intelligent race for all their primitive culture, and they were not long in discovering the truth — that they were superior to the men who had come to them as teachers and preceptors. And they learned as quickly that the purpose of the missionaries was nothing less than to overthrow their society and to establish in its stead a civilization as joyless as it was ugly and alien. Well, as I have said, the first attempt was a failure, but the missionaries had the horrible persistence of their kind. They came again and again, and when peaceable methods failed they resorted to force. They were landed under cover of the guns of warships. The natives accepted them then because there was no alternative.
‘The result was the inevitable one. The missionaries set to work at once to destroy the tapu — a system of laws, half secular, half religious, which constituted the only restraints the natives knew. These restrictions were always enforced and rarely violated. They covered every phase of human life, from the insurance of an adequate food-supply to the worship of the gods and the Levitical code governing childbirth or marriage with a relative. All of this was destroyed, as it had to be if Christianity was to thrive; and that is why I say that the Church is as guilty with respect to these people as though it had lined them up in their thousands and shot them down. Take from any nation its religion, its secular law, the tradition and immemorial custom which have all the binding effect of law — what is there left? What happens? Precisely what has happened here.
‘Think of it! This wholesale desolation has taken place in one man’s lifetime! The old native we met last night has witnessed the greater part of it. He remembers the last of the tribal wars. The Taputeans had wars, of course, but compared with ours they were as innocent as boys’ mimic battles. In the old days, although they had bows and arrows, these were only for sport. It was considered ignoble to use them in warfare, which was a man-toman adventure. And here is another thing to their credit: they abhorred infanticide, the system of birth-control which was practised by other branches of the Polynesian family. Children were welcomed, cherished, and almost spoiled by love. Strangely enough, during their centuries of isolation Nature seems to have adjusted matters so that the men far outnumbered the women. Their marriage customs, which so shocked the early missionaries, were undoubtedly better suited to their tribal life than the monogamy which was the white man’s substitute. Each woman had two husbands at least — a young man who was her lover, and an older man to provide for her. The position of women was high among them; they might rule as chiefs in default of men —
‘Am I boring you with all this?’ he asked suddenly. ‘ What started me anyway? Oh yes — Collingwood’s book.'
‘Please go on,’ I replied. ‘Tell me something more of the people. Cook, as I remember it, called them the finest race in the Pacific. Was that true, do you think?'
‘Yes, I think it was. If there were time for you to go through these books of mine you would be impressed by the unanimity of opinion on that point. Every explorer, without exception, who visited the island in former times, described the inhabitants in terms of almost extravagant praise. Naturally enough, the women came in for the larger share of it. Mendana said they were lovelier than the famous beauties of Lima, and you may remember the later account of Cook’s surgeon. He declared the women to be the most beautiful he had ever seen, and that the race as a whole surpassed any nation in Europe in physical perfection. Even the missionaries were reluctantly impressed by their beauty. A droll incident occurred when they first came here.
A group of young women, dressed only in girdles of leaves, swam off to the mission ship. There were some famished goats on board, and in their eagerness for green fodder they soon stripped these nymphs of their light; garments. Imagine how shocked the missionaries must have been! But evidently they did n’t turn away their eyes, for in their record it is stated that “for symmetry of form these young women might have served as models for the statuary and the artist.” Let me make one more quotation, from Collingwood this time. He visited Taputea, as I have said, in 1832, as second-in-command of the Resolute. While his captain was charting the bays and harbors, Collingwood, with two young midshipmen for companions, explored the valleys. He spent six months ashore, living with the natives, and during that time not a single unpleasant incident occurred to mar his relations with them. He must have been an exceptional man, tactful as well as brave. This is a part of what he says of the inhabitants under a chapter called “General Observations”: —
‘ It is not possible to praise too highly the beauty and grace of body of the Taputeans. The men are unusually tall —— rarely less than six feet in height — and splendidly proportioned. The women by comparison seem uncommonly diminutive. They are of a pale-olive complexion, with exquisite hands and feet, and their hair would be the envy of the most richly endowed women of England or France. Both sexes have teeth of milky whiteness, due perhaps to their largely vegetable diet. Their features are regular and so distinctly European that one could easily believe this race to be some lost remnant of our own. During my six months on the island I saw no instance of natural deformity, and disease appears to be unknown. The Taputeans have developed a complex and highly organized system of government and religion well suited to them. The communal life as it exists in their valleys seems to me as nearly perfect as any system of human society is ever likely to become. We have nothing to teach the Taputeans which could benefit them in any respect or make them happier than they now are. If for once the nations of Europe could forget their hatreds and jealousies and their eagerness for dominion; if they could agree to unite in protecting these islands, never to visit them, never to interfere in any way with the lives of their inhabitants, there might remain to alter time an example of a primitive race living under natural and social conditions which one may truthfully say approach the ideal.’
Mr. Cowden threw the book on the tabic and walked restlessly up and down the room.
’What a splendid suggestion!’ he said. Supposing it had been carried out; supposing that England and France and America had joined forces for that purpose. They might, have taken the mandate in turns. There is one small island in this group which has never been inhabited, and it is far enough away from the others so that there could have been no intercourse with the natives on the part of the sailors. I bis might have been made the station for a man-of-war whose purpose it would have been to see that no ships of any nation ever touched at the islands. The natives would have been left wholly to themselves. Once every fifty years or so, a few men of Collingwood’s type might have been permitted to spend several months ashore so that the outside world might keep in touch with this primitive civilization. Personally, I should have been content merely to know that it was in existence. And it might have been at this moment — think of it!
’But how absurd for me to be talking like this!’ he added with a wry smile. ‘What nations could have been found with the forethought, the unselfishness to carry out such a plan? No, no, it would have been impossible; but we ve lost something here well worth preserving, and it can never be replaced — never! Think of the people who were asking, one hundred years ago, as we still ask even more eagerly to-day, “Where is human happiness to be found?” And at that very time ignorant men and women were destroying, in the name of Christianity, the one place in the world, perhaps, where happiness was the rule and not the exception. And the old missionary record says, “The devout intercessions of the Christian world were continually ascending, like incense to Heaven, for the success of the embassy. They were — there’s no doubt of it. Well, their prayers were answered.
‘ What happened after all the natives had been converted?' I asked.
‘What has happened nearly everywhere else in Polynesia. The old life was completely changed, and the natives, exploited by men of superior cunning, lost heart. By 1850 they were rapidly decreasing in numbers. Trade had followed the Word, of course, and disease followed trade. The white colony was growing all this while. In the sixties there were three hundred or more — planters and traders making small fortunes in cotton during our Civil War. The chief difficulty was in persuading the natives to work on the plantations. There was nothing they wanted. Knives, mirrors, cheap jewelry, and gaudy calicoes — the usual inducements of the white man — were worthless here. At last the traders thought of opium, and after that there was no more trouble. The natives would do anything to get it, even work.’
‘ I suppose this old house is a relic of those days? ‘
‘Yes. There are half a dozen others like it in the settlement. No one has lived in them for years. After the Civil War, when American cotton was again on the market, the place began to run down, and by the late seventies nearly everyone had gone. Old La Motte, the government agent, is the only one left of all that crowd. He must be nearly ninety — in his dotage, of course, and very deaf. The Resident Agency used to be quite an important post. It was abolished in 1901 — there was nothing left for an agent to do, and La Motte was retired on half-pay. But he’s forgotten all about that. He thinks he’s still in the government employ and goes to his office every day. I ‘ll take you to see him tomorrow.’
The sun was an hour high by the time we had finished coffee the following morning. I decided to spend a part of the day in an excursion up the valley, but before starting I went in my host’s company to call on Mr. La Motte. The government building was a gloomy-looking structure, so encompassed by the jungle that the air inside was like that of a cavern and the light very dim. The walls of the hallway were covered with the mud cells of wasps, and open doorways revealed high-ceilinged rooms filled with a litter of old furniture, copra sacks, barrels, and packing-cases. We found Mr. La Motte in a large room at the rear of the building. He was seated at a table, writing, his eyes within an inch of the page before him. Mr. Cowden greeted him in a loud voice, but it was not until he touched his shoulder that he looked up from his work. He was frightfully emaciated, quite bald, with a face so pale that it seemed to radiate a faint light. He gazed at us with a puzzled expression.
‘You wish to see me? ‘ he asked, in a low colorless voice.
‘Yes; you remember me, Mr. La Motte? Cowden, Professor Cowden, The George Pritchard came in last night. She’s brought us a visitor.’
He seemed to be pondering the words, trying to rearrange them in his mind. At length he nodded, smiling wanly.
‘George Pritchard? Oh yes, I remember him.’ He looked doubtfully Irom one to the other of us; then, speaking to Mr. Cowden, ‘This is his son? ‘
No, no — not his son. Merely a visitor. He came by Captain Grey’s schooner. You remember, he calls her the “George Pritchard.’”
Oh,’ he replied, and was again long silent. ‘Of course!’ he added; ‘you wish to register. Just a moment.’
He rose painfully, went to a shelf filled with ancient ledgers, and stopped irresolutely before it. While he was making his search I glanced around the room. It was musty with the smell of old documents, which were piled everywhere on tables and chairs and scattered over the floor. The walls were covered with faded photographs of sailing vessels, picnic parties, and plantation scenes. In a tarnished-gilt. frame above the table was an engraved invitation requesting the presence of Mr. Alfred La Motte at a dinner and ball to be given on board H. M. S. Implacable on the evening of November 21, 1872; and under this was the menu card of the dinner prepared and eaten a half-century ago. Mr. Cowden touched my arm and nodded toward the old man, who was wandering vaguely here and there. Noticing some papers on the floor, he stopped to pick them up. Having collected an armful, he returned to his table and gave a slight start as though surprised at finding us there.
Wou wish to see me?’ he asked again, in the same puzzled way.
‘Some other time, Mr. La Motte.
It isn’t at all important. We’ll call again when you ‘re not so busy.’
’Yes; you ‘ll excuse me, gentlemen? I have some very important matters to look into. Come round to the club at four. We have very jolly times there.’ And he resumed his chair and began fumbling over his papers.
‘I’m sorry I brought you,’ said Mr. Cowden when we were again outside. ‘But sometimes his mind is fairly clear, and in that case it would have pleased the old chap immensely to have had a visitor. He would have made no end of a fuss in looking over your papers and having you register. Here’s the club, by the way. Hardly worth while going in. It was closed long before my time.’
Me halted in front of a decayed wooden building with a sign, ‘Colonial Club,’ still faintly visible over the door.
‘I’ll leave you here,’ he said. ‘A little farther on you will find a path leading off to the left. Follow it past the convent to the river. Then you have only to keep straight on up the valley. Wait a moment! Here’s Father Gilbert, our philologist.’
A robust little man wearing a sun helmet and a black soutane had just emerged from the path I was about to take. He had a long grayish beard and pale-blue eyes, all but hidden under shaggy eyebrows.
‘Well, Father, how arc you getting on with the dictionary?’ Mr. Cowden asked, after I had been introduced.
‘Slowly, slowly,’ he replied. ‘I can’t say that I see the end of the K’s, but I’m making progress. And by the way, Professor — you remember our discussion, some time ago, of kahi, the word for “albacore”? You said, if I am not mistaken, that it was kakahi in the Proto-Polynesian tongue?’
‘Yes, I believe it was.’
‘Well, I’ve been searching out modifications of the word, and I find that it is kakasi in the Penrhyn Island dialect there, you see, the consonants are still retained. But note this! The Tahitian variant is aahi, and in Rarotongan we have aai, the pure root form. Is n’t that interesting? It is an excellent illustration of my point, that in all the Polynesian dialects the roots are vowel.’
I left them a moment later for my walk up the valley. The path was clearly defined at first. It led through a thicket of weeds and bushes to the convent, a large two-story building with a grass-grown gravel walk before it. All the windows were closed and shuttered save those of one room at the corner. Hearing the sound of voices I glanced in. It was a schoolroom running half the length of the building, filled with rows of empty desks. Sister Theresa, a tiny woman completely hidden by her bonnet and robe, stood at a blackboard with a pointer in her hand, and two native girls, her only pupils, were repeating after her in singsong voices,
Five times sis are thirty;
Five times seven are thirty-five,
Five times eight are forty.’
They were pretty children of fourteen or fifteen, and one of them had the splendid hair Lieutenant Collingwood had praised so highly in her ancestors.
Crossing the river by a steel girder — all that remained of the bridge — I passed through a grove of mango and breadfruit trees where there were three or four thatched huts. They were evidently occupied, but I saw only one old woman sleeping in the shade of a doorway.
Far up the valley I came upon the house of the old native I had seen the night before. He was leaning against a tree, and his wife lay on a mat near by, her chin propped on her hands. I passed within a dozen yards of them, but neither spoke or gave the slightest indication that they had seen me.
There was no trail beyond this point, but I pushed on, through bushes festooned with spiders’ webs, over and around the trunks of trees, walking sometimes in the river and sometimes along the banks. All the way up the valley, on both sides of the stream, I saw great stone platforms on which the natives had formerly built their houses. Most of them were overgrown with trees and shrubs, but they had been so massively built that hardly a stone had been dislodged by the encroaching jungle. Toward midday I entered a ravine so deeply shaded by overhanging mountain-walls that it was nearly free from undergrowth. After following it for some distance I found it blocked from side to side by a terrace of stonework. A rude stairway led to a second and a third terrace, and beyond this was a paved platform, fully one hundred paces long by half as wide. At the back of it, in a recess hewn out of solid rock, was an immense stone image, partly covered with moss. It had fallen from its pedestal and was leaning against the mountain wall, gazing with wide-eyed vacuity at the empty sky.
It was an impressively lonely spot, but not so lonely, I think, as another in the main valley where I stopped for a swim. There the river descended in a series of cascades to a splendid bathingpool, walled on one side by a flattopped boulder almost as large as Mr. Cowden’s house. Steps had been cut up the sloping face of the rock. These were plainly footworn, and there was another depression at the summit where countless generations of island children must have stood before leaping off into the still, deep water.
I returned slowly toward the settlement, trying to imagine the scenes one would have witnessed in the valley a century ago. Collingwood had estimated its population at twenty-five hundred, and that of the island as a whole at six thousand. Now it was indubitably a Christian island, but the cost of making it so seemed out of all proportion to the result achieved. The silence of the place, its forlorn and lonely aspect, brought to my mind that dolorous land in Lyonnesse where King Arthur
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen.
Indeed, the only living things I saw during my solitary ramble were a few tiny iridescent lizards rustling over the dead leaves, and a species of small dustcolored bird which fluttered soundlessly through the undergrowth. But no — I had forgotten. Late in the afternoon, about a mile above the settlement, I met the native girl whose beautiful hair I had admired as I passed the convent school. She was walking arm in arm with two of the half-caste sailors from the schooner. They saw me from a distance and all three vanished into the bush. When I passed the place I heard a ripple of laughter hardly to be distinguished from the murmur of the stream.
On Sunday morning the captain sent word that we were to sail at ten. I was glad to leave Taputea, although reluctant to part from my kindly host. We had talked as men do who meet by chance, and part knowing they will never meet again. I have not forgotten an observation of his made as we were walking along the deserted grassgrown street toward the beach. We halted for a moment in front of the Protestant church.
‘Take a last look,’ he said. ‘Here you see the result of three generations of missionary effort.’
The service in Mr. Rudge’s church had just begun. There were four worshipers — one man and three old women. Mr. Rudge was reading the lesson from a native Bible, rounding off his periods with vigor and solemnity. The church stood close to the beach, and as we waited there for the schooner’s whaleboat we could hear the missionary’s voice echoing through the empty building.
‘Think of it! ‘ said my host. ‘ What a fiasco this whole civilizing, Christianizing experiment has been! Who has profited by it in any way? Who has been made happier? No one — not a soul. The natives are dead; the island is forgotten by the nation that stole it from them. As the captain said, it would be amusing if it were not so tragic.’
‘I wonder what Mr. Rudge and Father Gilbert think?’ I said.
‘They ‘ve lived here too long to appreciate either the humor or the tragedy. I doubt whether they ever have. Listen! Mr. Rudge can speak for himself. Do you know that hymn?’
They were singing at the church. The words were in the native tongue, but the air I recognized at once.
It was ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’