Adventures in a Puka-Puka Library

I

IN the middle of the room the rough pine boards are covered with a white Manihiki mat. Red designs are worked into its border, and at one end lies a kapok pillow, bulging its slip to the bursting point. This slip is the one old Mama, William’s wife, made for me. It is embroidered with big green and pink fish chasing little green and pink fish; and there is a red coconut tree exactly in the middle of a yellow sea. Two men are standing below the tree, and two coconuts are dropping straight for the men’s heads. This was Mama’s idea of a great joke. She would slap her withered thigh and cackle with glee as she explained the import of the design.

During the heat of the day I lie on my Manihiki mat with my head propped up on Mama’s pillow. I am too drowsy to read, and not drowsy enough to sleep. A faint breeze comes through the low window at my head; outside an old hen clucks sleepily, and there is the rumble of the reef surf nearly a mile away. Otherwise Puka-Puka Islet is wrapped in an enchanted stillness.

My bookshelves cover the chippedcoral wall near my feet, and as I lie here looking at them I am aware of what they mean to me. I am alone on this remote atoll except for my books and the funny little Puka-Pukans. A schooner comes twice a year to take my copra and supply me with trade goods. A strange white face sometimes appears from one of these semiannual schooners, and then there is always the same question: —

‘But are n't you lonesome here without another white man on the island?’

‘No,’ I reply, ‘for I have—’ and then I break off, realizing that this odd white shade would hardly understand if I explained that I have long discussions with my books.

I do not read as much as formerly, for my books have been thumbed many times. Nowadays I find greater pleasure in lying on my white Manihiki mat, resting my eyes on a cherished volume, and reviewing it mentally.

There is Mungo Park, for instance. The little green Journal figuratively jumps from its place between The Caves and Jungles of Hindustan and Calderon’s Tahiti, and, opening before me, Mungo Park himself steps out. I frequently start my discussions with him in these words: —

‘You are what all travel books would like to be, and your only fault lies in making it impossible for one to enjoy other books written in your vein.’

The Journal has disappeared, and the familiar objects in my room recede and dissolve in thin air. Now I can see Mungo Park standing by a deep brook, throwing pebbles into the water to ascertain its depth. A rotund little man called Walter Scott appears, peeping from behind a copse of brush. Park mutters in a sad tone — but he is not Speaking; he is invoking spirits from their graves, and projecting them in living pictures. All at once my blood races through my veins, for I see Ali’s band galloping toward me, clouds of sand rising over the horizon, a halfstarved white man prisoned with a pig in a hovel, and then this same man wandering on and on into a friendless wilderness, until at last he is alone in the heart of darkest Africa, hungry, naked, but indomitable. And now Mungo Park really speaks: —

After they were gone [the robbers], I sat for some time looking around me with amazement and terror. Whichever way I turned, nothing appeared but danger and difficulty. I saw myself in the midst of a vast wilderness in the depth of the rainy season, naked and alone; surrounded by savage animals and men still more savage. I was five hundred miles from the nearest European settlement. All these circumstances crowded at once on my recollection, and I confess that my spirits began to fail me. I considered my fate as certain, and that I had no alternative, but to lie down and perish. The influence of religion, however, aided and supported me. I reflected that no human prudence or foresight could possibly have averted my present sufferings. I was indeed a stranger in a strange land, yet I was still under the protecting eye of that Providence who has condescended to call Himself the stranger’s friend. At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss, in fructification, irresistibly caught my eye.

. . . Can that being who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and sufferings of a creature formed after his own image! — surely not!

‘I can see you, Mungo Park, deep in the intricacies of a maze that daily becomes more and more involved, knowing the improbability of your ever breaking out, and yet pushing forward, until you seem lost indeed. Darkest Africa! The phrase is a fitting one, for as you plod on the folds of wilderness close behind you, impenetrable curtains drop, one by one, seeming to blot out even the sun, until an infinite night descends, and you find yourself alone and friendless in a land where it is a virtue to kill you.

‘But after you have escaped from Ali’s camp, my vicarious terror lessens. I feel that it is now too late, and as you cannot turn back you may as well go on; death awaits you in either case. It now needs a jinni from The Arabian Nights, who can cleave mountains and soar through the air, to take you back to Doctor Laidlcy.’

The ifrit, Guardian of the Forest, leaps from The Tale of the Sea Rose of the Girl of China, and now another picture moves before me. Prince Nurighan dismounts in the depths of a forest and sits by the mountainous jinni. He takes a cake of flour and melted butter from his food sack and offers it to the jinni, who swallows it at one mouthful, and then, jumping to his feet with joy, cries: —

‘This human food gives me more pleasure than an inheritance of that red sulphur which formed the stone of Sulavman’s ring! By Allah! I am so delighted that, if each of my hairs turned to a hundred thousand tongues and each of those tongues were to sing your praises, the whole concert would fall short of the gratitude I feel. If you do not ask for some favour in return my heart will be as a porcelain plate dropped from a high terrace!’

‘Could you take Mungo Park out of darkest Africa?’

‘Yes; but I won’t, for Mungo Park has no sugar-and-butter cakes!'

II

‘Shall I open the store, Ropati?’ my store boy, Penny, calls, poking his head through the trapdoor leading to the trading station below my living quarters. ‘Old Pones is outside with twenty-four coconuts which he wants to trade for a mouth organ.’

‘Yes, open up, but don’t let him play his mouth organ in the store. . . . There are no mouth organs in darkest Africa.’

My store boy does not understand the last of my words, but it makes no difference. He is accustomed to me. He moves into the store, muttering, ‘These white men! These white men! What does Ropati mean by this Africa that is so dark? Can he be speaking of the storeroom? I had better light the lantern, for it is dark in there.’

Desultory reminiscences pass through my mind. ... A religious school — mortification of the flesh — intense longing for adventure — measles — my brother — and then Bhanavar the Beautiful and relief from the barbarities of a religion of suppression. My eyes move across the bookshelves to a little red volume beside The Toilers of the Sea, and I muse: —

‘George Meredith! Is it possible that you wrote The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and also The Shaving of Shagpat?'

‘Quite possible!’ Mr. Meredith replies, jumping from the bookshelf to my white Manihiki mat. ‘ But I hasten to explain that the Shagpat book was my first volume — poems excepted. It is only a silly burlesque.’

‘It is your only good book.’

Meredith answers petulantly, ‘But The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is considered one of the great English novels.’

‘It makes no difference what the world considers it.. You are in PukaPuka now, where there is only one opinion to be considered. Years ago I had a copy of your Feverel book. I lent it to Table Winning, one of the Cook Island traders. He stole it from me, as is his custom with books. I made no attempt at reclaiming it, as is not my custom with books.’

‘Then there are thieves among your contemporary traders. You know about birds of a feather flocking together?’

‘I beg your pardon; book stealing differs from chicken stealing. The former is a virtue.’

‘Do you practise virtue by stealing books?’

‘ I seldom remember to return a good book. It is more an error than a theft.’

‘Quite true!’ cried Sigmund Freud, thrusting his head from An Introduction to Psychoanalysis. ‘I explained the matter thoroughly in my lectures on The Psychology of Errors.’

Meredith replies blandly, ‘In my undegenerate day a theft was a theft, not an error.’

‘ But suppose you stole abstract goodness, would not such a theft be a virtue?’

Meredith does not answer, so I continue: —

‘In stealing — or in error about returning — a book, one is demonstrating a love of virtue.’

Meredith: ‘Then if you stole Rabelais, Casanova, or Lazarillo de Tormes, you would merely be acquiring virtue?’

I do not see fit to answer him. He continues, in a pleasanter tone: —

‘How did you happen to come across my amateurish Sharing of Shagpat ?’

‘When a boy I attended a straitlaced religious school, where the students were entirely isolated from the sinful world to be taught the tenets of a pseudo-mystic religion. We were told that Grimm’s Fairy Talcs, Santa Claus, and orthodox spooks did not exist. No literature on such topics was allowed in the school; but the fairies of Madame Blavatsky, the Mahatmas of the Himalayas, and the elementais and astral shades of William Quan Judge formed a large part of our education. The Shaving of Shagpat was on the little school bookshelf, because the masters considered that the author of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel could never be imaginative and beautiful enough to hurt our minds. When I had the measles my brother read this book to me, picking it from the shelf at random, and since then I have loved you in spite of the rest of your works. I have sprinkled a few drops of the essential oil of opopanax in the binding of your Shagpat, to give it a heavy Oriental fragrance in harmony with the book itself. When I read it I am taken away from the realities of life, as I was in childhood, and am carried to a land where anything is possible that is impossible. It is now cherished among the six other supreme books of my library. They are George Borrow’s Lavengro, Villon’s Testaments, Mungo Park’s Journal, Lorna Doone, The Arabian Nights, and The Adventures of Gil Bias de Santillane.'

‘You can’t give an author a better excuse for jumping from the bookshelf than telling him you are pleased with his book,’ said George Borrow, suiting his action to his words. 'I have only one quarrel to pick with you, and that is that you have squeezed my four volumes between those low Memoirs of the merched anladd, Harriette Wilson, and the canting Memoirs of that hypocrite, Stephen Burroughs. My Newgate Calendar, though, you have put where it belongs, with The Canning Wonder and For the Term of His Natural Life.’

‘Ah! George Borrow!’ I mused aloud. ‘What a meddling old Englishman you turned out to be!’

‘What do you mean, sir?’

‘ I mean it is as hard to believe that Meredith wrote Feverel and Shagpat as that you wrote Lavengro, Romany Rye, The Bible in Spain — and Wild Wales. Can it be that Mr. Petulengro’s friend, the tinker of the dingle, the acquaintance of the man who could read The Crockery Literature of China but could not tell what’s o’clock, the gypsy, the scholar, the priest, is the same inquisitive old gentleman who lugged a wife and daughter through Wales, never tiring of relating how he surprised the inhabitants with his knowledge of Welsh?’

Apparently George Borrow does not hear me. He appears to be sitting some distance away, in an old English inn, with the shade of a jug of brown ale at his elbow. Now and again he sips the ale with great relish. As I watch him he recedes into the chipped-coral wall; then it, too, disappears, and in memory I am on Matauea Point of Ko Islet, reliving the wild night when I first read The Bible in Spain.

III

The lagoon was lifeless, steely, reflecting each cloud and the littoral of the bay so clearly that, lying on the beach, I could easily imagine the real sky beneath and the reflection overhead. Toward noon curtain clouds formed high up, deepening gradually until the groves were almost as dark as night. On the reef great seas were pounding and countless sea birds circled about screaming plaintively.

Shortly before six the sun forced its way through the clouds with its disc only a few degrees above the horizon. Instantly the whole cloud-dome was illuminated with a flaming red light, as bright, to east as to west. It was a sight to fill one with fear. The groves, the lagoon, the beach, absorbed it until all other hues were lost in a blood-red effulgence that seemed to glow in the very air itself. When the sun went down the light vanished by rapid perceptible degrees, and in a moment, it seemed, pitchy darkness had set in.

Still there was no wind. Crawling beneath the mosquito net, we listened to the great seas bombarding the reef; they seemed intent on crumbling the tiny islet to powder and distributing it along the bottom of the Pacific. From time immemorial this insignificant crumb of land with its banks of sand ostentatiously decorated with a few coconut trees had broken the serene march of the great rollers on their way across the Pacific; now the time had come for reparation. The mighty combers crashed down with long echoing reverberations like the roar of great cannon, and followed by the ominous swish of broken water rushing across the reef in mad clouds of foam and spray.

As I listened it seemed to me that the islet had become very small, had shrunk to a mere sand bank which was being ravenously devoured by twenty-foot combers. Amid the roar of the breakers I could hear the sea birds’ dismal foreboding cries from the coconut palms, and the incessant hum of countless mosquitoes outside the net.

I felt light-headed; grotesque hallucinations materialized before me with startling vividness. I was afraid and found myself unconsciously humming light refrains for relief. When relief failed to come I lit a lantern, set it outside the mosquito net close to my head, and settled back to lose myself in The Bible in Spain. I must have read for several hours when I came to this paragraph: —

I had no sooner engaged him than, seizing the tureen of soup, which had by this time become quite cold, he placed it on the top of his forefinger, or rather on the nail thereof, causing it to make various circumvolutions over his head, to my great astonishment, without spilling a drop; then, springing with it to the door, he vanished, and in another moment made his appearance with the puchera, which, after a similar bound and flourish, he deposited on the table; then, suffering his hands to sink before him, he put one over the other and stood at his ease with half-shut eyes, for all the world as if he had been in my service twenty years.

I laughed aloud. Little Sea, my wife, grumbled in her sleep, while Tomi, her ten-year-old brother, with wide-open faunlike eyes, stared at me. Closing my eyes, I conjured up Antonio, the valet, in his bizarre guise: —

His arms were long and bony, and his whole form conveyed an idea of great activity united with no slight degree of strength; his hair was wiry, but of jetty blackness; his forehead low; his eyes small and grey, expressive of much subtlety and no less malice, strangely relieved by a strong dash of humour; his nose was handsome, but the mouth was immensely wide, and his under jaw projected considerably. A more singular physiognomy I had never seen, and I continued staring at him for some time in silence.

Suddenly I started, closed the book over my finger, and sat upright. Visions of gypsies stealing forth on the ‘affairs of Egypt,’ of maniacs, Andalusian orange venders, and bloodthirsty robbers flashed through my mind, leaving it incapable of other thoughts. At first I knew merely that something unusual had happened: there was a new sound, like the hissing of countless snakes. I thought it might be the wind blowing in the fronds, but as there was still no wind I conceived that it must be waves washing along the shore. But waves wash intermittently, while this was one long unbroken hiss. I wondered if the seas on the outer reef had increased to such an extent that they had flooded over the shallows and were even now washing across the islet. The hissing increased in volume until I imagined that a great wave must surely be rushing toward us. I sprang out of the net and ran to the door.

Complete silence; the hissing had suddenly stopped, and for a moment even the sea birds were quiet. Then a great comber boomed along the reef, sending a seismic tremor through the islet. A frigate bird squawked, and there was a buzzing in my cars, for the mosquitoes quickly found me out.

I returned to the net and, reopening The Bible in Spain, I read on to the point where Borrow whispers the magic gypsy words in his fractious stallion’s ear: —

The Romany chal to his horse did cry,
As he placed the bit in his horse’s jaw,
'Kosko gry! Romany gry!
Muk man kistur tute knaw! ’

We then rode forth from Madrid by the gate of San Vicente, directing our course to the lofty mountains which separate Old from New Castile.

Again the hiss, scarcely audible, reached my ears, coming as though from a great way off. The booming on the reef had suddenly increased to a deafening roar, but still I could hear the sibilant sound, a noise apart from the sea’s roar. With increasing agitation I closed my book and shoved it under the sleeping mat. If I had had a barometer my mental state would have been explained, for the glass would have registered ominously low. Little Sea and Tomi, blessed, nerveless savages, were sound asleep.

Gradually the hissing increased until I again imagined that a great wave was washing across the point to engulf us in the lagoon. Rushing outside once more, I listened for a moment, and at last understood the cause. Strangely enough, although it was dead calm where I stood, the wind was rustling overhead, carrying with it the swishing sound of the water foaming over the reef.

Then, as though it had been gathering force far out at sea, it struck the islet with a yell of fury, screaming through the trees, hurling fronds and nuts through the air — a force of indescribable violence, bent on destruction! Its first impact sent me staggering into the house, carried away the roof as well as the frond sides, and tore the mosquito net from its fastenings to whirl it, spectrelike, across the lagoon.

Little Sea and Tomi were safe. When I reached them they shouted in my ears, simultaneously, ‘ Uriia! (Hurricane!)’ They were not in the least frightened — on the contrary, they seemed to be enjoying it. I was thinking of the flying nuts and fronds and listening to the intermittent crashes as coconut trees were snapped off and hurled to the ground. I remembered that a termite-eaten one was growing directly to windward, and no sooner had the thought come than, as though to warrant my fear, with a report like the firing of a dozen rifles the top of the tree was snapped off and hurled over our heads into the lagoon beyond.

My nerves were now keyed to a point beyond fear; nevertheless I realized the perilousness of our situation. Matauea Point was not more than five feet above sea level and the highest point on Ko Islet did not exceed fifteen feet. What should we do when the seas started breaking over the land itself?

We huddled together in the middle of the house, or, rather, in the framework of the house, with the sleeping mat at our backs. Rain came in torrents, soaking us with the first downpour. My teeth chattered and the cold seemed to eat into the marrow of my bones, but Little Sea and Tomi dozed on either side of me, apparently quite comfortable.

By four in the morning the gale was at its height, blowing with such violence that we could no longer sit with our backs to it, but must lie flat on the ground. Nuts, fronds, and trees had ceased falling, for most of them had long since been blown into the lagoon and the weaker trees had gone down in the first gust. No gale can break or uproot a sound mature coconut palm — it will bend its sixty-foot bole to the ground without breaking; but one log which rolled toward us with great violence reminded me that the danger was not past. We could not see it, but we heard the crash when it struck the termite-eaten to windward.

My mind wandered back to the story I had been reading in The Bible in Spam. I found myself muttering over and over: —

‘The Romany chal to his horse did cry.
As he placed the bit in his horse’s jaw-’

and I saw Antonio standing before me with the soup tureen balanced on his finger nail. He seemed to be smiling and winking at me in an incomprehensible manner. Then, yelling, he did a wild dance, tossing the tureen under his leg so that it made a turn over his head, and on the downward course he caught it in his teeth, grinning fiercely. Then, taking it on the palm of his hand, he dashed it with all his strength against the stem of a coconut palm. It bounded back without a drop lost, whereupon he caught it on the bridge of his nose and balanced it there.

Little Sea was shaking my shoulder and screaming into my ear. I was roused from my wide-awake nightmare, and at length grasped the meaning of her words: —

‘The seas are coming! The seas are coming, Ropati!'

Dawn was breaking, a leaden joyless dawn. I could dimly see the outlines of ragged palms with most of their fronds carried away, while the few remaining ones lay out horizontal and stiff in the mighty gale.

Then l heard a deafening roar as though the islet were being wrenched loose from its foundation and whirled to oblivion in one annihilating avalanche of water. The next instant what remained of the house was flooded two feet deep in a foaming torrent that rushed pell-mell across the islet.

I jumped for my canoe and moored it to a tree. It was no sooner done than a second wave foamed over the point, three feet deep. I jumped into a tree and literally watched the Pacific Ocean washing beneath me. Little Sea and Tomi clung to another tree near by.

I had not noticed in the excitement that the wind had abated and was even then diminishing by perceptible degrees. Within the next five minutes it was dead calm again. It is at such times that the seas rise, for during the height of the gale they are flattened by the wind.

The next wave took the skeleton of the little house, flooding the point a good six feet deep. Fortunately, instead of uprooting the trees we were roosting in, it banked about two feet of sand over the whole length of the point. But waves are fickle things, and as the next one might sweep away all the sand that had been brought in, and a good deal more besides, we took advantage of the lull between the third and fourth waves to run inland to higher ground.

It was an eerie experience watching those great seas piling over the islet, carrying débris — birds, fish, and gigantic masses of coral which had been wrenched from the reef. But by midday the seas had given up their attempt to wash Puka-Puka into the marine ooze, leaving a tattered and torn Ko Islet strewn with dead fish, mangled trees, coral boulders, and drowned birds. The three of us made our way slowly back to Matauea Point. I was conscious of something solid in my pocket. Pulling it out, I found that it was my copy of The Bible in Spain. I distinctly remember putting it under the sleeping mat, and how it managed to get into my pocket is a mystery to me to this day.

IV

‘Such, George Borrow, are the circumstances under which I read your book.’

But I have mistaken my store boy for Borrow. Benny pops out of the trapdoor like Mephistopheles in my friend Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. He tiptoes across the room, lights the lamp, glances toward me with concern, and disappears the way he came. Presently I hear the pop of a cork from one of my bottles of island-brewed ale, and then Benny whispering to my old retainer, William: —

‘Ropati is a trifle mad again; we had better leave him alone. He is talking to himself and gesticulating wildly, like Sea Foam, the preacher, during Sunday service.’

I barely hear him, for my eyes are lingering, now, on a cherished volume in the philosophers’ row.

Living writers refuse to enter into discussions, though they often poke out their heads to make some happy comment. This is my great quarrel with James Branch Cabell, for I wish to discuss with him his philosophy of things as we should like them to be. If I outlive him I shall be able to unburden myself of many things during these Puka-Puka reveries. For instance, I shall tell him of another time I sailed across the lagoon for Ko Islet. There I meant to hunt turtles by night and drowse away the days with a fishing line thrown from the beach and an odd hour spent over the pages of Beyond Life.

Halfway across the lagoon, an ominous black cloud rose over the horizon.

It rushed upon me, and in no time I was in the midst of one of the fiercest squalls I have ever known. I slackened the sheet, letting the sail flap, but the force of the wind against the mast and rigging capsized the canoe. As she was going over I instinctively grabbed for the thing I valued most, and the next instant was fighting for my life in a foaming lagoon. Eventually I caught hold of the canoe’s gunwales and held on until the wind had abated. When sufficiently composed to look about me, I found that I was holding my copy of Beyond Life. My food, clothes, bedding, fishing tackle, had sunk or were floating to leeward, but I had saved the half-read volume. It was the thing in the canoe that I desired most.

I will tell this to Cabell, — if he dies first, — and I will explain why I think his philosophy is sound, pointing out that we South Sea traders are all Don Quixotes, trying to live life as we believe it should be, closing our eyes to disillusioning realities, and fearful of living intruders lest they bring us back to earth.

A gust of wind enters through the low window, and the lamp is extinguished. I have been lying here on my white Manihiki mat for hours, and it has seemed but a moment. Old Mama has my tea ready, and Benny and William will continue drinking my ale until I put a stop to it.

Only a few of my friends have visited me to-day. To-morrow I shall invite Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim to enact the siege of Dunkirk and the siege of Widow Wadman. Then there will be Gil Blas, Cotton Mather, Samuel Butler, Benvenuto Cellini; and perhaps Swinburne and François Villon will sing for me.