Puka-Puka Neighbors


THERE are two churches on the South Sea atoll of Puka-Puka, where I have been a trader for a number of years. The larger one is the chipped-coral building of the London Missionary Society. It is quite imposing, with its pandanus-thatched roof contrasting with the blazing white of its plastered sides; I can see it from the trading station, a trifle to the right and fifty yards back from the road. The other church, belonging to the Seventh-Day Adventists, is about a quarter of a mile farther down the road.

On Saturday, Monday, and Thursday mornings I am wakened at sunrise by the tinkle of the little bell of the Adventists, calling the congregation of eight old men and a few women to early morning service; but on Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday mornings the bell of the larger church across the road wakens me. As I rub the sleep from my eyes I can hear the congregation singing drowsily: —

’Rest for the weary, rest,
When all life’s toils are o’er.
Rest for the weary, rest,
Upon a tranquil shore,
Where sighs, and tears, and pains,
Once all in mercy sent,
Will ne’er disturb again
The blest inhabitant.
Rest for the weary, rest,
Rest for the weary, rest.’

The last bars drag and limp with indescribable languor. It is the invariable opening hymn for the morning service, and an appropriate one, for on this dreamy island most of the work is done at night, while the day is reserved for sleep. So if my neighbors are ever weary, it is at the hour of the morning service, before turning in for a day’s sleep.

The church bells have become a prominent factor in my atoll life, as they have to William the heathen, my retainer. William and his myopic wife, Mama, are lords of the cook shed. There they compound weird messes, much to the envy of the villagers. Mama is the official cook, receiving ten shillings a month in that capacity — but her husband takes most of the credit, as well as the wages. He lolls back on the wood box, hurling at his patient spouse all the invectives, in several languages, that he picked up while whaling.

’Caramba!’ he will cry, all but the profanity being in Puka-Pukan. ‘There goes the Christians’ church bell! Here you, Mama, don’t fall asleep over the stove, or I ’ll baste you one. Blood and devils! Did n’t I tell you to break the egg before putting him in the frying pan? What t’ hell Bill! You bust the egg and don’t take off his shell? Oh, what an old fool! Here, make the coffee — and don’t forget, to grind him first!’

Mama is accustomed to him; she does not pay the slightest attention, except to pick the pieces of eggshell out of the frying pan until it becomes too hot for her fingers. She is an old woman who dresses in a grass skirt tied over a gown of cheap print. She gesticulates in a frenzied, incoherent manner, and cackles cheerfully when one takes notice of her. In spite of William’s peremptory ways, she is the apple of his eye. Let the slightest indisposition confine her to her little hut on the lagoon beach, and the ex-whaler will rush from one end of the island to the other in search of herbs and native doctors; he will become as nervous as a mother attending the illness of an only child.


My first acquaintance with William and his wife was during my first day on Puka-Puka. An hour after landing I had walked through the central village, where the trading station was to be, and, turning into a path which led behind the church, walked through a desolate graveyard and on to the coconut groves and taro beds of the interior. Inland, as much as fifty acres had been excavated to a depth of ten feet, bringing the taro beds to sea level, where the roots of the plant could flourish in swampy ground. I wandered on, past a dozen or more taro beds, and as many little graveyards isolated among the groves. These are curious places, with headstones of coral slabs covered with innumerable designs. Being bare of vegetation, they gulp the hot sunlight voraciously, and give it back in scorching waves of heat.

Near the sea side of the island the taro beds give place to unbroken coconut groves stretching to where trees with gale-gnarled limbs grow by the outer beach, sheltering the palms. Beyond grows scraggy bush which gains but meagre sustenance from the coral gravel thrown up by the sea.

On breaking my way through the bush I closed my eyes before the glare of exposed sand and shallow water between the reef and shore. The water reflected the full blaze of the sun like countless tiny mirrors. The shallows were alive with cross seas meeting in sparkling ridges of spray, falling back in dancing undulations. Miniature waves washed upon the beach and were gulped down by the gravel, leaving no backwash; and farther out came the incessant thundering of the great Pacific combers as they rose with deliberate recklessness to crash in resounding cannonades along the reef, and to spill back into the sea, exposing rustred ridges of coral broken by pools of sea foam.

’Ulekaina!’ croaked a froglike voice, so close at hand that I was slightly startled. I looked about, but at first saw no one. Then, at one side, I observed a mound of coconut leaves somewhat resembling a hayrick. A grizzled brown head protruded from the top of it, and a face furrowed all over with deep wrinkles. On the head was the brim of a European straw hat; the crown was missing. The head thus framed was shaped as nearly like a blunt-nosed bullet as a cast could have made it. Under the brim a pair of small shrewd eyes regarded me closely with an amused and superior air, and a pair of ears, anything but small, stood out at almost right angles from the head. The skin of the face was like old, well-seasoned shoe leather, pierced on the chin by about a dozen wiry hairs that served as a beard.

Ulekaina!' the voice croaked again, and of a sudden the hayrick rose, and became an enormous grass skirt which covered the old man at least a foot deep.

He raised a long index finger, with a knuckle like an orange in an ostrich’s throat, described a circle in the air, and then pointed at himself.

‘Uiliamu (William),’ he said.

I described a similar circle with my index finger, pointed at my breastbone, and said, ‘Ropati.’

He nodded in a knowing manner, resumed his hayrick posture, and produced a pipe from somewhere in his grass skirt. Holding it to within an inch of his right eye, he stared into the empty bowl and sighed deeply. Then he brought forth an empty tin, gazed into it in the same distressing manner, and demonstrated its emptiness by turning it upside down and shaking it vigorously. I handed him my tobacco tin, whereupon he proceeded to fill his own tin in the good old Scots fashion, cramming the tobacco down, making farsighted provision for the future. Having filled his tin, he again concealed it in his grass skirt, and, digging into another part of the hayrick, produced a stick of twist tobacco and some dried pandanus leaf. With these he rolled two cigarettes — one for me, in consideration of my generosity. We smoked them in silence.

After a long and, to me, rather embarrassing interval, he said, in polished whaler English, ‘Where t’ hell you from?’

‘What!’ I said. I was rather bowled over by this sudden question.

‘Damme! You no spik English? What t’ hell! You Dago? You Chow? I spik too much English. Wha’s a matter you ? ’

‘I’m an American,’ I said. ‘I’ve come here to open a trading station. Where did you learn English?’

‘Me? What the devil! Me whaler man! No Puka-Puka Kanaka! Whaler man! Tutae-auril

Tutae-auri means ‘heathen,’ and William went on to assure me that he had nothing to do with Christians. This interested me, for very few of the natives on these lonely islands have the courage to flout the missionaries. Although few or none of them have more than a vague notion of what Christianity is about, nevertheless they are great churchgoers. I have not met more than three who, like William, were avowedly and boastfully heathen.

We sat for a long time on the outer beach, yarning about all sorts of things. Once he left me for a moment to shin up a coconut, palm for drinking nuts, as agilely as though he had temporarily shouldered off half a century. We talked until noon, when he accompanied me to the village, going before me with an air of possessorship — for he said that he meant to adopt me as his son, exhibiting me to all the Christians as the white man whose godlessness was equal to his own. His adopting me as a son turned out to be my adopting him as a retainer — an act I have often repented, in spite of my fondness for the old scoundrel.


I was alone that first night at PukaPuka. The supercargo had checked over my trade goods and returned to the ship. Sea Foam, my landlord, brought a mosquito net and a mat, so that I had nothing to do but unpack a few of my belongings and loll on the verandah, watching the villagers waking from their long siestas.

At about ten o’clock fishing canoes returned from their excursions along the reef for lobsters and mulau fish. Then, like magic, the islet was transformed. Scores of coconut-shell fires blazed with their characteristic glaring white flame, throwing grotesque shadows on the brown thatched huts, dancing in fairylike shimmerings among the domes of coconut fronds, casting ghostlike reaches of light through the adjacent graveyards, and silhouetting the forms of pareu-clad natives at work cleaning their fish.

I could see William sitting in front of his house. The firelight threw his figure into clear relief against the wattled wall at his back. He sat crosslegged, his arms hanging limply at his sides, the backs of his hands resting on the ground. He was staring vacantly in front of him, and I knew that he was in one of those trances so common to the natives of Polynesia. Though Mama was at his side cleaning fish for a belated meal, he was as completely unconscious of her as though he had been in the deepest sleep. What a blessed faculty it must be to command oblivion!

I rose from my mat and walked through the village, hungrily sniffing the fragrance of fish grilling on scentless coals, for I had eaten nothing since morning. Now I was greeted on every side with ‘Ulekaina!’ and ‘Moe ai Koe!' The first greeting is not translatable; the other means much the same as our ‘Pleasant dreams!’ — an appropriate greeting, certainly, for such a somnolent little island. Everything is dreamlike here; the island itself is a dream come true, so that romanticists who are patient enough may see vindicated their faith in remote lands beyond the farthest horizon.

On returning I came to Mama’s house, where William woke up and insisted on my eating with them. Old Mama seconded the invitation, gesticulating and grinning with all her might. They made an amusing pair, and seemed peculiarly suited to each other. Mama gave me a fine mulau fish served on a clean banana leaf, and a piece of taro pudding. Both the fish and the taro were wonderfully appetizing after my long ship’s diet of tinned meats.

After the meal William and I talked about all manner of things, while Mama hovered around, feeling my hair, running her long bony fingers into my pockets to examine their contents with childish delight. Everything they contained amused her, and at each discovery she would clasp her hands and make all sorts of lunny noises. She chattered ceaselessly, asking William questions to which he would reply in an offhand, disdainful manner.

Soon a crowd of natives gathered round, when William, waiting for the psychological moment, produced the tobacco he had stolen from me. He ceremoniously filled his pipe with an air that seemed to say that he never smoked any but the finest brands of white men’s tobacco, and pompously lit it with a coal from the fire. But a little later, when the others had gone, he knocked out the half-smoked tobacco with disgust, and refilled his pipe with his own mule-killing twist.

The next morning, when I was wakened by the strains of ‘Rest for the weary, rest,’ I found that William and Mama had established themselves in the cookhouse, and William was roaring curses at the dear old lady as she tried to kindle a fire.


One evening, shortly after my arrival on the island, I was walking through the groves on the seaward side of the island. Observing a coconut palm growing at an easily scalable angle, I decided to climb it to catch the breeze while I smoked my evening pipe. Upon reaching the top, whom should I find there but my old friend William, perched on a cluster of nuts jammed between a frond butt and the tree. He was leaning comfortably back in a mass of foliage, sucking an empty pipe. I offered him my pouch; he gravely accepted it, filled his pipe, and motioned me to a perch on a neighboring bunch of nuts.

Having made myself comfortable, I lit my own pipe and leaned back to enjoy a quiet smoke, while the wind swayed the tree gently, with a pleasant cradlelike motion.

Old William livened up at my arrival. Producing a six-foot piece of string, he tied the ends together, and, after looping it around the index and little finger of each hand, proceeded by rapid manipulations to form complex patterns in the string between his fingers. Schoolgirls in America often amuse themselves in this way, making what they call cat’s cradles, but their patterns are simplicity itself in comparison with old William’s.

The Puka-Puka string figures are of immemorial origin. Local legends tell how the gods of Puka-Puka taught them to the people. One legend relates how the famous Polynesian god, the oldest Maui (Maui-matua), visited Puka-Puka and challenged the people to test his wisdom. The local heroes and gods started making string figures before him, asking what they represented. Each pattern he named correctly: ‘This is Po-nao-nao; this is the oven of Lau-tara; this is Tii-konikoni.’ But when one hero made a puzzle for Maui to unravel, the god tried and failed. In order to save his honor, he directed the attention of the local hero to a large bird in an adjacent tree, and while the hero was looking away Maui undid the puzzle by breaking the string, much as Alexander cut the Gordian knot.

Heathen William. like the rest of the inhabitants, had made a life study of string patterns. His skill was really marvelous. The old man’s bony fingers were almost invisible as he manipulated the string; then he would stop abruptly, spread his hands, and show me a new design. Throughout the performance his coarse old face was wrinkled with a self-satisfied smile.

‘This is a shark,’ he would say, showing me a new pattern, and he would grunt a chant specially composed for that particular picture; ‘this is a flock of birds over a school of fish; this is Ko Islet after a great hurricane.’ Many of his patterns were of such a nature that they could hardly have been shown at a ladies’ sewing circle; as for his explanations of their meanings, it is enough to say that they were what one might expect from old Heathen William.

‘Now,’ he said, ‘I will show you one of the most difficult of all. Not many people can make this one.’ His fingers moved so rapidly that it was impossible to follow their movements, and the string was crossed and recrossed so many times that at last there was a space of only a few inches between his hands. He stopped, spread his fingers, and exhibited the pattern. ‘What would you call that?’ he asked, grinning at me.

I shook my head.

‘Caramba! What t’ hell! Don’t you know what this is? What they teach you in the white man’s school? It’s a cowboy having a great battle on the outside beach at night.’ He rolled his eyes and wiggled his thumb, whereupon the complicated pattern worked back and forth in an indescribable manner. Old William roared with laughter, and nearly fell out of the tree in his merriment. Then he put the string back in his pocket, saying that he would show me some more patterns at another time.

I shifted to a softer cluster of nuts and relit my pipe, which had gone out in the thick of William’s graphic battle. We were silent for some time. At length I asked: ‘William, what is your greatest pleasure in life?’

Without a moment’s hesitation the sage of Puka-Puka replied: ‘Shooting marbles; that is, nowadays. But when I was a wild youth I was a terror with the women.’

In these days, he went on to tell me, the Puka-Puka youth are as foolish as the white men, for they listen to the teachings of the missionaries and try to ape the white men’s ways. Now, when a young Puka-Puka man wants a wife he asks her father’s permission to marry, and wastes his money buying her worthless trinkets from the trading schooners, — dresses and shoes and pareus and the like, — when it would be much better to spend his money on himself, buying all-day suckers, tops, marbles, or Japanese kites.

William expressed his opinion of such modern practice in a singeing blast of curses. He spat venomously over the side of the tree and proceeded to tell me how different things had been in ‘the good old days’ when he was young. When he wanted a wife, which was often the case, he chose her without asking her father’s, her mother’s, or even her own, consent. He simply took her whether she liked it or not. He had learned early in life that women like masterful men.

The old heathen chuckled to himself as he thought of past days. ‘Ah, when I was a youth,’ he resumed, presently, ‘women were nice and fat!’


The sun was just setting, but William and I, having refilled our pipes, had no intention of leaving our comfortable perch. A wayward hen, too proud to roost with the other hens on the village church, had come to our coconut palm and was cluck-clucking petulantly, for halfway up she had spied us occupying her roost. The breeze had died away and the tree was now quite motionless save when William required forcible gesticulations, which made it sway in a gentle nodding manner as though it were confirming every word the old sage uttered.

‘Speaking of women,’ he went on, ‘have you heard the death chant I am making for old Mama?'

‘What!’ I cried. ‘Do you mean to say that you are composing a death chant for old Mama!’

’Caramba! Yes! Why not? She’s an old woman; she won’t last many more moons.’

Then in his wheezy guttural voice he began chanting a song that started,—

‘Akaru na ke, akat’ia,
Opoiia i fe kanga at’i,
Ru na niwan’ unga vavare.'
(‘I shall gather them all in one place,
My wife and her three sisters,
For they have all smiled on old William.’)

I remarked that I thought it a shame to compose a death chant for his wife when she was still in her usual health, and, furthermore, to brag about his past flirtations with bis wife’s sisters. ‘You don’t know the Bible, William, because you are an old heathen; if you did, you would be more considerate of your wife’s feelings.'

‘The Bible! If it says that it’s wrong to flirt with your wife’s sisters, then it’s even more foolish than I thought. Your wife is glad when you take a fancy to her sisters. She knows that you re not making love to some other woman’s sisters.’

‘Then you think it’s natural for a man to make love to more than one woman ? ’

‘Of course! What you think? You think any man makes love to only one woman? No Puka-Puka women believe that, or Puka-Puka men either — not even when they’re young. But listen to the rest of my song.’

He chanted away for at least twenty minutes, speaking now and then of poor old Mama, but for the most part exalting himself, speaking of his whaling days, and giving a list of the names of those he had at various times honored with his affections.

I confess that I was rather shocked at William’s callousness, that he was so little concerned over the prospect of old Mama’s death that he could compose a long, and certainly lewd, song in her, or rather in his own, honor.

I wondered what would happen if I were to die on Puka-Puka. The natives would have a big time, unquestionably. They would compose a death chant — Bosun-Woman would very likely be given the job of composing it; a few would wail over my body for a day, and then I should be quickly forgotten. And what was I, after all, but a somewhat more highly sensitized Mama?

William interrupted my musings: ‘Here’s the ending of the song,’ he said — and with that he spun me a few more verses about himself.

Dusk had deepened as we sat there, and people were waking from their all-day slumbers. William, apparently, had only just begun to talk. He proposed that, he should give me the complete history of his life; but I was cramped from sitting so long in the same position, so we slid down the tree and returned to the village.


One day old Mama was sitting by me embroidering with her clumsy calloused hands a pillow slip after her own design. A Rarotonga girl had taught her the trick, but Mama would have none of those foolish flower and flags-of-allnations designs. She intended presenting me with a pillow slip which she herself had ‘composed.’

I took up a book, but failed to interest myself in it. Presently I brought out my photograph album, and showed Mama various scenes and portraits.

One of the first pictures was of myself standing in a small boat holding an albacore in each hand.

‘Oh!’ cried Mama, clapping her hands. ‘A steamboat!’

‘No, no, Mama,’ I said; ‘it’s only a little fishing boat I once owned at Tahiti.’

‘But it’s got a smokestack,’ said Mama.

‘No, that’s me, Ropati, standing in the boat.’

Mama held the album at about two inches from her myopic eyes, studying the picture long and intently, muttering to herself the while. At last she shook her head in a skeptical manner. ‘Well, Ropati, it may be you, but it looks like a steamboat to me.’

I turned the page to a photograph of my old Aunt Deborah, surrounded by her family of fifteen.

‘Oh, a mountain!’ exclaimed Mama, after she had examined it for some time.

This may seem absurd, but it is precisely what old Mama said. She had very poor eyesight; furthermore, she had never seen a photograph of any sort until I came to Puka-Puka, and, although she knew nothing of either mountains or steamboats except by hearsay, she was always likening the pictures in my books to one or the other.

‘No, Mama,’ I explained, ‘that is my Aunt Deborah and her fifteen children. You see, the photographer has arranged them so that the little ones are at the ends and the tall ones in the middle, so the outline is something like that of a mountain.’

‘Have you ever been on a mountain, Ropati?’

‘Oh yes, many times.’

‘Is a mountain as high as a coconut tree?’ . . .

I turned over the pages, much to Mama’s delight. She saw only mountains and steamboats, but took my word for it that most of the photographs were of my friends and relatives in America. There was Yancey, who kept a grocery store and who used to give me chewing gum, and Doc Harry, who often came to our house for Sunday dinners, and Uncle Harvey and the Reverend Hezekiah — many more. It saddened me to think how far I had drifted from my old life and of the many years that had passed since I had last seen any of the dear ones at home.

I started describing to Mama the wonders of America — its vast plains, its mountains, the mighty lakes and rivers, and the great highways stretching from coast to coast. ‘Just think, Mama,’ I said, ‘if you were to start walking from the Pacific Ocean across America, and could keep going day and night, it would take months to reach the Atlantic Ocean!’

‘You mean, if you were to paddle across,’ said Mama.

‘No,’ I said, ‘walk.’

‘But that’s foolish! You could n’t walk across the lagoon.’

‘I’ve said nothing about a lagoon.’

‘But how could you walk across an island without crossing the lagoon? Unless you followed the reef — and that’s not walking across it, but around it.’

Mama, never having seen any land but a coral atoll, could not conceive of an island without a lagoon; and, of course, to her America was nothing more than an atoll somewhat larger than Puka-Puka — but not a great deal larger. For a long time I tried to explain, saying that there were mountains and plains where the lagoon should be; but she would always break in with the question: ‘But where is the lagoon, then?’

At last, somewhat exasperated, I said: ‘Damn it! There is no lagoon!’

‘Damn it! There ain’t, you!’ roared old William, who was on the verandah. He had not heard the argument, but had caught my ejaculation. Being accustomed to swearing, particularly at Mama, in season and out of season. he could not let such an opportunity pass.

But Mama still persisted that there must be a lagoon somewhere. So to settle the matter I drew a sketch of America Island, arranging matters as best I could so that she could see how things were. She studied the plan for at least ten minutes, while I painstakingly pointed out the different lands, explaining everything in minute detail. Presently she turned the chart upside down. Then she recognized the peninsula of Florida and the Isthmus of Panama as two smokestacks, and decided that I had drawn a really lovely steamboat.


William and I turned from the road and followed the private trail of the young unmarried to where the largest of the Puka-Puka graveyards lies, near the central village council house. William had brought a solitary bottle of wine, the last of my supply from Tahiti, and we were looking for a secluded spot in which to enjoy it.

Coming to a lean-to beside one of the graves, William turned and said: ‘Caramba! Fine place! Bones and Benny will never find us here!’

We crawled in under the coconut thatch. Within was a space about six feet square, covered with woven frond mats, where the relatives of some dead man came, occasionally, to sleep. The high side of the lean-to was open and faced the clearing.

After a couple of pulls at the bottle, William started the conversation, saying, apropos of nothing: ‘Now that gravestone over there.’

‘What about it?’

‘What about it! Puncture me! He was an ancestor of mine!’

‘He was? What was his name?’

‘Caramba! How should 1 know?’

‘I should think, on an island like Puka-Puka, you would know your ancestors’ names.’

‘What do you know about it? This lubber died several hundred years ago; but I know he was one of my ancestors, because the stone at the head of the grave leans a little to the left while the one at the foot leans the other way. And I know by the stones along the sides that he was blind in one eye and had a fine set of teeth.’

After this display of anthropological lore he was silent for a moment while he had another drink. Presently he said: ‘But that one next to him was a no-account man. He was white-headed when he died, which proves that he ate other people’s coconuts. He married twice; had four children by his first wife and two by the second. And he had elephantiasis in both legs.’

‘What was his name?’

‘He died hundreds of years ago, but I know that he was a descendant of Tauperoa, Big Stomach’s enemy. Of course any child knows that. It is shown by the kind of coral the stones are made from.’

‘How did you know the other particulars about him?’

William gave me a contemptuous glance.

‘Hell and damnation! You got no eyes? Can’t you see the bottom of the headstone has been smoothed off? That shows as plain as day that he was white-headed. The two notches on the footstone mean that he had two wives, and the coral slabs along the sides, four on one side and two on the other, show the number of his brats. And anybody knows by the way the grave lies that he had big legs.’

‘And that ancestor of yours? How did you know he had only one eye?’

‘Look at the sharp-pointed slabs along the sides: they show that he had a fine set of teeth.’

‘ There’s one stone missing: does that mean that he had one tooth out?’

‘You are one big fool!’ said William scornfully. ‘If he’d had a tooth out, do you suppose they would have put those stones there to show he had a fine set of teeth? The missing stone means he was blind in one eye.’

‘But could n’t those stones mean his children, like the ones on the other grave?’

The old man fairly singed me with curses for daring to have such a suggestion to offer. He gave me to understand that I was not qualified to have opinions in such matters. Then he returned to the pleasant, topic of gravestones, explaining how each stone tells the story of the man buried beneath, even though it has no chiseled inscription. Thus a pointed stone at the head, three small ones on either side, and another pointed one at the foot, proclaim that a great fisherman is buried beneath. A square headstone, with two little digits protruding from the corners, means, for some strange reason, that the occupant of that grave was bald-headed. An interesting and curious volume could be written about the gravestones of Puka-Puka, for there arc many kinds, and each village has its own symbolism.

‘Caramba!’ cried William. ‘I have decided on a fine stone for you, Ropati. It will tell about your cowboy adventures, and your store, and everything else!'

‘William,’ I replied evasively, ‘just look at that sunset! A salmon red, like the tinned salmon I sell in the trading station for one and sixpence. Bv the way, do you like tinned salmon ?’

‘Blast me, no! Salmon is for women, beef for men. I will have another drink. But about your death chant:

I have a part of it ready.’

Night set in, cloudless but dark. I stared out of tho hut across the cemetery where the gravestones glimmered faintly under the light of the stars. Despite the wine I had drunk, a shiver ran down my back. I imagined that I could see shadowy figures moving here and there among the stones.

I heard a gurgling sound from the darkness close at hand. The old man smacked his lips as he set down the bottle.

‘When you are an old lubber like me,’ he said, ‘you’ll know all these old Puka-Pukans. Yes, and you’ll see them, too. Many’s the night l have.’

But little more was needed to excite my imagination to the seeing point. Already the shadows seemed to be taking form around me — heads with empty eye sockets and rows of gleaming white teeth; flesh-covered forms as well — men with elephantiasis legs and hair so white that it gleamed with phosphorescent light.

‘Now there was Mauta a Tau,’ mumbled the old man, as I watched more of the ancient Puka-Pukans rising from their graves. ‘He was a great fisherman, and married King Rauta’s daughter, Teina. Both Mauta and Teina are buried by that high-pointed stone, but the King was killed by a turtle at sea.’ The old man laughed. ‘They say that every night when Mauta went fishing Teina would sit by the beach at Yato and sing: —

I will wait for you a year, And a half a year, my husband.

‘But she didn’t. One night one of the bucks from Yato came down to hear her sing, and it turned out that she did n’t wait nearly so long as she had promised she would.

‘Mauta’s bones are in the grave in front of you.’


A diffused light like a phosphorescent mist seemed to steal across the cemetery. I could again see old William’s face, and the gravestones stood out sharply. My heart pumped double time for a moment; then I realized what had happened: the moon was rising.

The old heathen upended the wine bottle, threw it aside, and spread out his arms in a wide gesture.

‘My father lies over there on the sea side of the graveyard,’ he said. ‘He’s under that tall square stone. He was a fathom and six fingers high, and he weighed three hundred and eightyfive pounds on Captain Bully Hayes’s scales. My mother’s grave is the next one, and then the graves of my six brothers and sisters.'

Another group of phantom figures, but less distinct than the rest, seemed to rise out of the ground as though old William had conjured them up; but in a moment they dissolved in the light of the rising moon.

‘Do you see that blank space to the right ? That’s for Mama and me.’

Suddenly he grasped me by the shoulder, put his face close to mine, and gazed into my eyes with a drunken, leering smile.

‘ But there’s plenty of room for three, Ropati! We’ll leave a place for you!

‘Caramba!' he shouted. ‘I will now compose the rest of your death chant!’