THE vessel that I boarded at Samoa has little to distinguish her from any respectable tramp steamer. An old steamboat man, however, would tell us that she has the lines of one of the crack ships out of Newcastle-on-Tyne, a graceful overhang aft, a bold sheer forward, a high fo’c’sle deck, a short waist, and a long poop. He would point out that her flying bridge is unusually high, that there is a row of cabins on her boat deck, that her ‘monkeys’ island,’ the highest inhabitable spot aboard ship, stands on a horizontal plane with the top of her yellow and black funnel.
The creature comforts were more than satisfactory to me, a South Sea trader, but they could not be recommended to the traveler whose tastes have been modeled after civilized standards. I recall the meals as consisting of roast beef, puddings, and tea, with particular emphasis on the latter. Tea we had at 6 A.M., sans façon, in the pantry, seated on folding canvas stools, on the sideboard, the sink, the floor; and for those who felt the need of solider nourishment there was always a round of cold roast beef, cheese, jam, bread and butter. It was a time of much conversation, loud laughter, and good fellowship. Tea we had at breakfast, at 11 A.M., at lunch, at 4 P.M., at dinner, at the nine o’clock supper. To a fastidious man there was far too much meat; but to this first-class passenger, accustomed to the atoll diet of coconuts and fish, the great platters of roast beef, the breakfasts of chops and steaks, the dinners of beef, mutton, or pork, were far from monotonous. Albeit the meals would satisfy most people, the vegetarian should be warned against traveling on a ‘lime juicer,’ for these English sailors look upon vegetables as a garnish for meat, not as a food that one actually eats. A side helping of green peas with one’s beef, a dab of apple sauce beside one’s pork, is much the same as the sprig of parsley one finds ornamenting a steak.
The first morning aboard Tramp Steamer I was wakened by a metallic tapping sound, a tap, tap-tap-tap, tap — tap, tap, similar to the rubadub that drummer boys are supposed habitually to rattle off. It seemed to come from the small radiator fastened to the forward bulkhead. I had no more than time to wonder vaguely if it were a mealtime signal when I noticed, through the open doorway, the captain moving toward my cabin, soft-footed, furtively, I fancied. When he had passed through the doorway he stopped within a few feet of my berth, folded his arms, blinked his little gray eyes, and nodded his head thoughtfully, as though about to exclaim: ‘Hm! So this is the firstclass passenger, is it ? ’
Partially bald, physically weak and ailing, his face sallow, his frame thin but supporting the usual waistline corpulence of an inactive man, the captain seemed to me to have something a trifle abject about him. Even when I learned that he knew how to exact obedience, I always felt that he was forcing himself to assume a stern attitude which was in opposition to his frail spirit; I fancied that he was about to break down when the necessity came to command; and it was with somewhat of a shock that I heard a sharp order or a severe reprimand from his thin lips.
‘How are you?’ he asked, studying me as a specialist might study the victim of a strange disease. When I replied that I was well he sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and, half turning to go, ‘ Can you take nourishment? ’ he asked.
He lifted his eyebrows in mild surprise, then, unfolding his arms, pointed with his left thumb over his right shoulder, through the doorway, and down the companionway stairs. ‘ Breakfast,’ he said, and, completing the turn, he stumped down to the dining saloon.
On following him I found the other two passengers at the table. Mr. Barrister, an Australian, sat next to me. He was taking a Richard Henry Dana voyage, I was informed later, for his health, working every day with the sailors, but paying his passage and dining in the saloon. An excellent companion, I found him droll, somewhat of a wag, but capable of understanding and tact. We all liked Barrister, while we were both amused and bored by Stevins, the other passenger. The latter was an American lad, ingenuous, credulous, inclined to brag, or, to be more precise, to lie atrociously. Munchausenesque deeds were recounted when Stevins and the chief engineer swapped stories.
We had not been seated long, and the captain had not had time to growl more than twice because of the tardiness of the steward, when the chief engineer himself blew in like a friendly thunderstorm.
‘Well, well, well!’ he cried heartily, his great ruddy face beaming, ‘and how are we all this A.M.?’
‘Very well, Chief,’ Barrister and Stevins replied. The captain glared at the chief. He had heard this greeting, with only the ‘A.M.’ changed to ‘noon’ or ‘P.M.,’ three times a day for the past two years.
The chief sat down heavily, glanced at me in a fatherly way, and, as I was not yet acquainted, introduced me to himself and the other two passengers, the captain having overlooked this detail. He was about to introduce me to the captain when a growl from that gentleman informed him that we were acquainted. Then, clearing his throat and taking a deep breath, he started to talk; nor did he stop, so far as I know, for the rest of the voyage, for I have no evidence that he did not talk in his sleep.
‘He never lets me get a word in edgeways,’ the captain told me that morning when we were smoking in his little sitting room. ‘And he’s a liar! Yes, sir; no other name fits him! Don’t believe a word he says! It’s all lies! And I got to listen to them every day! ’
Tap, tap-tap-tap, tap — tap, tap — sounded from the captain’s radiator.
‘It’s a mealtime signal, I suppose?’
Tap, tap-tap-tap, tap — tap, tap —• came like a faint reply.
A vague smile started to play about the captain’s lips. ‘That’s the steward signaling Sparks that it’s dinnertime, and Sparks’s reply,’ he whispered. ‘The steward taps on the heater pipe in the pantry and the sound is carried all over the saloon house, to every radiator.’ His smile had become impish with mischief; his eyes expressed a kind of shamefaced pride in his iniquity as he leaned forward to say, in a barely audible tone: ‘I signal Sparks sometimes myself, by tapping on the radiator pipe. Sparks is an old woman, just like the steward. I tap on the radiator pipe all hours of the day and night, just to wake him up and make him mad!’ Here the captain made a tapping gesture in the air with a crooked index finger. ‘Nobody knows a thing about it but me. It’s my little joke on Sparks. He knows somebody’s playing a joke on him, but he can’t tell who it is.’
Next day I learned that everybody on the ship knew about the captain’s little joke. We were drinking our early morning tea in the pantry, and the cook was telling us of a wonderful dance programme he had heard over the radio the night before, when, abruptly, his panegyric was broken into by the tapping sound, coming this time from the heater on which, incidentally, I was sitting. I raised my eyes in a questioning glance toward Sparks.
‘ Oh, Lord,’ the wireless man groaned, ‘that’s the captain playing his little joke again!’ Then, noting my questioning glance: ‘Have n’t you heard about the captain’s joke?’
‘What joke?’ I countered.
‘Oh, he taps on the radiator pipe to wake me up, all hours of the day and night. He thinks I’m asleep in my cabin now.’
Suddenly jumping to his feet, Sparks strode up to the heater to tap off a series of dots and dashes. ‘That’ll shut him up!’ he growled. ‘I told him what I think of him!’
Later that same day the captain confided to me that his joke had been a great success that morning. ‘Sparks got so mad he started pounding the radiator pipe,’ he said. ‘I think he was cursing in Morse!’ Then he whispered: ‘Never say a word about it, will you? Nobody knows a thing about it but you and me!’
That evening at dinner Stevins told us a yarn about a swordfish that had wrecked a large vessel off Catalina Island. He had caught the fish later, he affirmed; it had weighed just over a thousand pounds.
‘That makes you the world’s champion,’ said the chief engineer, clearing his throat and taking a deep precursory breath.
‘World’s champion what?’ asked Barrister.
‘Aye, aye, we won’t go into that; but if you’d like to hear a true fish story . . .’
‘What d’ you mean, true?’ Stevins growled.
‘Just what I say, young man. Now, I have done a bit of angling myself in my day, and, though I have never caught a thousand-pound swordfish, I have hooked many a strange denizen of the deep. None, though, as strange as the one I fished up only the other night. I had wakened at 3 A.M., as is my habit, for a chief engineer must be up at all hours of the night, his duties being the most important of all those aboard ship.’ Here the captain gave the chief a sour look. ‘Well, my acutely trained ear had detected an unaccountable sound from the engine room. Ordinarily I can tell by the slightest click exactly what is wrong with the engines, but this time I was quite at a nonplus. As I hurriedly pulled on my trousers I heard it again and again, a kind of fluttering sound, a faintly audible purling. At times it would stop, but before long the strange sound would start again, to increase and diminish in a way that bewildered even me, a chief engineer! I was becoming alarmed. Pulling on my coat and not even pausing to button it, I rushed out of my cabin to dash into the engine room; but there, young man, I stopped, frozen in my steps — aye, but not from terror.’
The chief paused dramatically. A smile wreathed his great florid face; his eyes seemed to have become a trifle misty. When he went on, a tender lyrical note came into his voice.
‘Aye, young man; it was a sight to make the heartstrings tauten. A little flying fish had been blown down one of the ventilators; and there he was now, fluttering from grease cup to grease cup, from jet-injection pipe to escape valve. Tears sprang to my eyes. Aye, sir, I’m not ashamed to admit it: tears actually sprang from my eyes as I watched the beautiful silvery-blue flying fish, so unconscious of danger, fluttering here and there about my great roaring engines!’
I glanced at the captain to note a leer of disgust precisely the same as I had once seen on Heathen William’s face when he had accidentally filled his mouth with vinegar. The chief, though, was smiling beatifically. His eyes certainly were a trifle misty when he muttered: ‘Aye, lad; fluttering here and there about my great roaring engines, from grease cup to grease cup, from condenser to reversing wheel.’
Just then an ominous growl came from the captain. He bolted the last of his rice pudding, jumped to his feet, and stalked out of the dining saloon. I followed him a moment later.
‘It’s all lies, lies!’ he shouted when we were in his sitting room. ‘The chief never saw a flying fish in the engine room . . . fluttering from grease cup to grease cup. They don’t flutter; they soar! Up at all hours of the night! His duties the most important aboard ship! Dashing into the engine room with his coat tail flying! I believe that part. He got in a blue funk and went dashing into the engine room with his coat tail flying, and that’s all there was to it! Don’t believe a word he says; it’s all lies! ’
Twenty days out of Apia we entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the usual heavy fog. Not a glimpse of land; only the forlorn blare of the lightship diaphone, the distant bellow from Cape Flattery, and, as we proceeded up the strait, the foghorns of passing ships. When I left my cabin to climb to the navigating bridge, felt the damp fog creep beneath my clothes, listened to the mournful call of the foghorns, I wondered why it is that the tropics are not crowded with sun-hungry white men who have left these inhospitable latitudes to the gales, the gloomy skies, the sea gulls. Yet sailors out of northern ports will say, ‘Pity the poor man who must sail in the tropics!’
I stood on the navigating bridge until two in the morning, trying to put myself in the captain’s place, planning what I should do in each eventuality, realizing how hopelessly involved I should become. And little by little, as the night wore on and we felt our way up the fog-choked channel, the captain’s pettiness seemed to fall away from him, leaving a man who was thorough master of both himself and his ship. It was well-nigh impossible to believe — and I made myself not believe — that this man, who controlled so unerringly the navigation of a great ship, should be the same one who played childish tricks on the wireless man, who spent days tinkering with an expertly designed radio, who nursed petty grudges against his crew.
It was two o’clock in the morning when we passed Race Rocks, a group of sunken dangers where the Strait of Juan de Fuca enters the Strait of Georgia. They are a great peril to shipping, for the tidal current flows past them at ten knots or better — as fast as our vessel could steam. Tonight I heard the Race Rocks diaphone blaring a raucous warning, anything but forlorn in this case, like a boss stevedore bellowing to his men. We seemed to be on top of it before the captain changed his course; then gradually the ship swung round to the northward, making for the seventeenfathom patch that lies off the quarantine station.
‘Tell Mr. Mate we’re going to anchor!’ the captain called from the flying bridge.
The stillness was broken by the clangor of anchor chain passing through its hawsepipe. The whole ship vibrated. Then the anchor was on the bottom; the chain passed out slowly for a time; again the ship was quiet.
From close by in the gray exanimate fog the Race Rocks diaphone bellowed. I turned toward my cabin, my heart heavy with nostalgia for the warm coral strands of the South Seas.
There are two ways of reaching Vancouver from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. One is roundabout and comparatively clear sailing; the other is direct and dangerous — the Active Pass route. We were taking the latter, and, in my way of thinking, thereby assuring the safety of the ship; for where the route is reasonably free of danger the navigator’s vigilance relaxes, and his vessel is jeopardized, while where danger is very real he is alert, thus assuring his vessel’s safety.
To-day we entered Active Pass in such dense fog that we had not a glimpse of the land, though often it was no more than fifty yards away. We heard the shore fog signal on entering, to be sure, but from then on we had to rely on navigating by echo. Only a skilled pilot who has an uncanny knowledge of local acoustics can do this. He must know, throughout the hundreds of miles of the Inside Passage, every spot from which a sound will reverberate; and he must be able to calculate instantly his position, his distance from the cliff or rock from which the echo came, by the length of time between the sounding of the ship’s horn and the echo’s reply. Moreover, most important of all, he must be able to judge accurately from whence the echo came. To an untrained ear the deep-mouthed reboation of a ship’s horn seems to have lost itself in the fog, to have wandered by devious bypaths and crooked ways until at last it has reached the ship as a circumambient bellowing rather than as a sound from an ascertainable direction.
I expressed my wonder to the pilot when, on entering the clear water beyond Active Pass, he had come to the chartroom for a cup of tea and a sandwich.
‘Hm!’ the pilot muttered when he had devoured his sandwich in two bites and emptied his cup of tea in a gulp. ‘Hm! It’s a little confusin’, all right, when there’s logs a-floatin’ about.’ Like most West Coast Canadians, he spoke with more of a twang than do the Down East Yankees.
I expressed my surprise that a log should endanger a large steel vessel.
‘It ain’t that,’ he replied. ‘A log floatin’ on calm water makes an echo, and it takes a lot of experience to tell the diff’rence between the echo a log makes and the regular echo. But I can gener’Iy tell, though sometimes it’s confusin’.’
When we had docked at Vancouver, the cook was waiting for me at the gangplank. He had promised to take me ashore. He was a changed man. No more the man of doughy hands, of greasy checkerboard pants, of perspiring face, he was now figged out in a tailor-made tweed suit; his hair was slick, his boots polished; a pair of pince-nez eyeglasses, with a black cord to his vest, gave him a distinctly intellectual look. I was proud to be walking down the gangplank with him.
There was a stevedores’ strike going on, and we found the dock guarded by three policemen, one from the local force, one from the Territorial Constabulary, one from the Northwest Mounted, each armed with a rifle and an automatic. Fifty yards away, across the No Man’s Land of railway tracks, the streets were lined with pickets; but we found these last, as well as the police, blessed with the courtesy seemingly so congenital to the Canadians.
‘What ship you off, mates?’ one of the pickets asked.
‘I’m a passenger on Tramp Steamer,’ I replied.
‘So am I,’ lied the cook, removing his eyeglasses and holding them upright in a manner that suggested a country photographer attracting, with an upraised lead pencil, the attention of a small boy.
‘O.K., mates.’ Then, in a tone almost apologetic: ‘How about a donation for the strike fund?’
‘Certainly,’ said the cook, and, producing a half dollar, he handed it to one of the men. I having done likewise, we passed on.
The first impression of Vancouver is not pleasing, but the second and succeeding impressions are wholly delightful. The waterfront streets are grimy; they are crowded with thousands of men who, from morning to evening, from evening to morning, stand listlessly on the sidewalks, lean against the buildings, stare blankly at the gray stone walls across the streets. They seem as utterly depressed as the little nasturtium plants that decorate the window sills of many of the office buildings; they seem sunk in that form of depression in which the victim no longer suffers but merely continues to exist, without hunger, without pain, without pleasure, all but exanimate. Their clothes are drab colorless things that hang about their bodies like wilted leaves; their hats slouch over their eyes; their boots are unpolished; and, most disconcerting of all, one senses an inadequacy of soap and water. This last was particularly noticeable to me, having just come from the tropics, where one visits the shower bath at least twice a day. Within a few hours, however, I learned that these men belong to a far different, and a far more picturesque, class than that of the chronically unemployed of other cities.
‘Here we are,’ the cook said when we came to a café on the ground floor of one of the hotels.
Presently I found myself being pulled by the arm as the cook led me to a table where two young men had risen to meet us. I was introduced first to a youth of no particular character, but with the odd name of Swivins; then to a man somewhat older, of outstanding personality, but with the common name of Jones. The latter was tall, sallow, gloomy, probably introverted, with a dry sense of humor which struck me as being entirely unconscious.
After shaking my hand limply, he turned to the cook. ‘I came, you will have noticed,’ he said in a dull tone.
‘ He should n’t have come, though,’ Swivins piped. ‘He’s going to get married to-morrow.’
‘Yes?’ exclaimed the cook. ‘Congratulations ! ’
‘There’s no point in congratulating me,’ Jones muttered. ‘It’s simply my fate; it could n’t have been otherwise.’ He sighed; then, turning to the waiter, ‘Export,’ he said, ordering, as I found when the waiter had returned, an 8 per cent Pilsener which is made for export but is consumed locally. The cook and I added sandwiches to the order.
For some time conversation was desultory. Swivins dropped a few bons mots, each of which, I decided, had been prepared for the occasion. In remarkably few words he told a great deal about himself, and, having done so, he fell silent, as though to intimate that he had made his little speech and now no more should be expected from him. The cook, mellowing under the Export, clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Fellow,’ he exclaimed, his eyes sparkling behind the clear crystal of his pince-nez, ‘you’re only a passenger, and after this voyage I’ll never see you again, but I like you just the same!’
‘Thank you, Doctor,’ I replied; ‘and I like you, too.’
‘I wish I could say that about my future wife,’ Jones muttered gloomily; then; ‘What do you think of Vancouver?’ he asked, evidently wishing to change the subject.
I made a noncommittal reply.
A faint smile appeared on Jones’s lips. ‘Say what you think,’ he said. ‘It’s terrible, of course.’
‘It was rather depressing to see so many unemployed down on the waterfront,’ I admitted, but added that I supposed they were stevedores who would be back to work before long. ‘You see, where I live, on a primitive island, there has never been a case of forced idleness.’ I had laid stress on the word ‘forced,’ remembering how old Bones and William spent their days resting, and even my store boy, Benny, did most of his trading while asleep on the station counter.
‘Well, your island has little on Vancouver,’ Jones said. ‘The men you mentioned are not stevedores and they are not unemployed. Strictly speaking, they are only on vacation.’
The cook and I smiled.
‘You think I’m joking,’ Jones muttered dryly, ‘but I’m not. These men are on vacation. They are fishermen, paper makers, loggers, high-riggers, and the like. They work for the canneries or in the forests until they have saved a few hundred dollars; then they come to Vancouver to enjoy themselves. When their money is gone they have little trouble returning to their jobs.’
‘They don’t choose a happy way of enjoying themselves.’
‘They know no other life — that’s the blessing of it,’ Jones said. ‘They are fated to this existence as surely as I am fated to marry a woman I dislike.’ He raised his eyes to stare vaguely at a spot on my forehead.
‘Take the lumbermen,’ he was saying. ‘Whistle punks and high-riggers, line-horsemen and plain lumberjacks. They work in the fine clean forests for a few months; they feel their axes biting deep in the live wood; they have the smell of pine trees in their nostrils, the vigor of fresh air in their blood! Think of it: up every morning at daylight; the aroma of coffee and bacon from the cook shack; hard work and healthy appetites; smoke-oh and a pipe of tobacco; long yarns in the bunkhouse at night; sound sleep while the wind is stirring in the hemlocks and they are breathing deeply of the resinous air! But are they satisfied? Not a bit of it. Before they’re in camp a week they hanker for Vancouver. After a month they start counting the days. Every waking moment, even in their dreams they are obsessed with the idea of hurrying back to the city; and when they have saved a hundred dollars or so, iron bars could n’t keep them in the camp any longer. “Hurrah, boys!” they shout as they throw down their axes and line up for the pay shack. “A couple of days more and we’ll be in Vancouver! Hurrah, hurrah!”
‘In Vancouver,’ he went on, ‘they have a bout in the beer parlors, but not for long, for you’ll find that the Canadians are not intemperate; then they choose nice soft squares of pavement; they slip their hands in their pockets, lean against the buildings or the lampposts, and just stand there, for days, for weeks, sometimes for months. And during this nonvegetative period, I imagine, they are thinking about the fine life out in the forest, the line-up for the mess shack, the luxury of a pipe of tobacco in the bunkhouse. Yes; that’s what they are thinking about: they are wishing themselves back in camp, but at the same time they are psychologically unable to leave their little squares of pavement until the last of their money is gone. Then, with the first pangs of hunger, the idea suddenly comes to them: “Why not go back to camp?” They smile, straighten up, take their hands out of their pockets. “Believe I will go back!” they think. “By Jiminy, I’m going!” and off they tramp to the employment bureau, shouting: “Hurrah, boys! A couple of days more and we’ll be back in camp! Hurrah, hurrah!”
‘So it goes: “Hurrah, boys! We’ll soon be back in camp!” “Hurrah,boys! We’ll soon be back in Vancouver!” Could there be better evidence of the inevitability of fate?’
The gold digger came aboard bright and early the next morning, particularly to see me. Tall, of handsome physique, bareheaded, coatless, wearing a blue silk shirt with a monogram embroidered on the left breast, he had the frank open face of a crook.
‘I’ve just been down to Cocos Island,’ he told me. ‘Gold diggin’! I found it!’ he whispered tensely. ‘The real stuff! Spanish gold! Half of it’s yours’ — and here he spoiled the effect— ‘if you’ll sail to Cocos Island with me! Three million, five-hundred thousand dollars! Think of it! All you got to do is buy a vessel, provision it, and we sail. What do you say? Do we go? There’s a cold three and a half million in it for you!’
Just then he jerked up his right hand to squeeze his nostrils with his thumb and index finger as though to alleviate an itching. The motion drew back his shirt sleeve, exposing a number of red spots on his wrist. They completed the case against him.
‘What kind of coins did you find?’ I asked.
He hesitated for a little; then, in an offhand tone, ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘doubloons and pieces of eight! ’
A vessel bound up the Inside Passage leaves Vancouver at a predetermined hour and minute so as to reach the difficult narrows above at the turn of the tide. Navigation through these narrows, the pilot told me, would at any other time be like navigation in the rapids below Niagara Falls, for the current runs through this strait at from fourteen to seventeen knots. We sailed at 4.15 A.M., as I knew, for the foghorn started bellowing the moment we had left the dock, and I, rolling over, looked at my watch.
I find myself at a loss to describe effectively the cold, austere, objective beauty of the Inside Passage. Perhaps an impression of it can best be had from the captain’s words when, during the voyage north, he had summed up the impression made on him by the Strait of Magellan. ‘It was grand and magnificent,’ he had said, rolling off his syllables, ‘but it made me go cold in the backbone to look at it. Awful grandeur, that’s what it was.’ Awful grandeur — and, to me, scarred, humiliated grandeur — describes the Inside Passage; for, wherever the great secular forests have grown to profitable dimensions, enterprising lumbermen have appeared to slash scars down the mountain sides. These abrasions are without a single sapling, bush, or weed — yellow gaping wounds that are scarred deeper every year when the rain freshets gouge furrows, then gullies, down them.
On deck the next morning I found that the fog had lifted, the air was crystal clear. We were steaming up a fiord, apparently into the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Off the port bow an arm of steely-black water broke from the main channel to lose itself among the purple snowcapped peaks. All about us the mountains rose from water as sombre, smooth, and fathomless as that of a crater lake. I sensed an indwelling quality of pristine stillness in the forests that stretched upward on either side in two indivisible robes of silver-green; and it was with vexation that I heard Tramp Steamer’s horn reverberating across the quiet water, intruding into the mountain forests, echoing back in an awed, tremulous note.
We had steamed close to a point where a few acres of heavily wooded and comparatively level land jutted into the fiord. Above us, on the starboard side of the flying bridge, we could see the captain and the pilot, unaccountably excited. The former had his binoculars focused on a log house of the kind city people build, with verandahs, glass windows, and modern conveniences, standing on the extreme end of the point, within a foot or two of the water. Turning aft, at a nudge from Barrister, I noticed the chief and second engineers on the boat deck, both with binoculars, while the cook, the mess boy, and the bosun stood by the galley door, their eyes glued on the point.
We were now not more than fifty yards away, so there was no mistaking the nature of the apparition when, prancing from the forest like an etiolated Pan, came a naked man! A few seconds later as many as a dozen men and women, in puris naturalibus, appeared on the front verandah of the log house. They waved to us, as free from embarrassment as though they had been properly clothed.
What a strange and exotic sight! In the midst of the lonely forest, a group of neurotic men and women, unclothed, naked! There is something obscene about naked white people. Yet I am accustomed to looking, unmoved, on naked and semi-naked people. On my island of Puka-Puka men and women think nothing of disrobing in their homes to walk quite naked to the beach for their evening swim. Nowawi, the king of the island, walks past my trading station every day at sundown on his way to the lagoon, gray-headed, bent, his clothes left at home, his hands, like fig leaves, modestly setting an example to the less modest neighbors. Or again, if I were to visit a whole family at the moment when they were starting to dress for church, they would change their clothes in my presence without self-consciousness. Nor should I feel any, for I have lived among these people so long, seen so much of nakedness, that I have lost interest in the physical characteristics of the unclothed Polynesians. But when the pantless apparition, pallid, hirsute, pranced from the forest to stand with one arm outstretched to lean against a tree, like a young man supporting himself against a mantelpiece, I, a hard-boiled South Sea trader, was genuinely shocked.
‘I’ve made arrangements for us to go through the paper mill this afternoon,’ Barrister said next morning.
‘That’s fine; how did you manage it?’
‘I sent the manager my card. When he had admitted me I explained that I am an Australian barrister and that I wished to visit the mill with my acquaintance, a wealthy South Sea trader and author.’
‘Oh, it’s nothing. The mill manager is going to escort us through personally.’
And so it turned out. On meeting the mill manager, a hatchet-faced, affable person whose æsthetic, religious, and material life was centred about the mechanics of newsprint manufacture, he said he had enjoyed my stories in two of the most popular magazines in America; also, he hoped I should have something nice to say about Papertown in one of my forthcoming articles. I then realized that Barrister had been fibbing about me so as to obtain a technically expert guide, while the manager had merely told a polite lie. However, never having obtained a check from either of the magazines he had named, I assured him that anything I wrote for those publications would be highly complimentary; and thus, incidentally, I made myself as polite a fraud as were they.
The mill manager flushed with pleasure; he started to repeat his first statement, but his words were drowned, for we had just entered the sawmill. From where we stood I could see, through a large opening in the side of the building, a flume-like structure slanting at twenty degrees down to the booming grounds where floated rafts of spruce, hemlock, and balsam, waiting to be mangled into newsprint. Along the bottom of the flume an endless chain, fitted with steel snags, caught the logs and carried them to the mill. There they were handled with brutal efficiency: steel against wood; active power against passive beauty. Logs weighing tons were grasped and thrown about by immense steel arms; logs were bashed, punched, tossed this way and that, gripped by claws to be lifted bodily, placed with marvelous precision exactly in place on the carriage that took them to the band saw. This last, with a high-pitched sustained scream, slashed through the wood at the rate of 8600 feet a minute, cutting 500,000 board feet a day. I believe I have this correct, but the noise was so terrible when the manager shouted it in my ear that I may have got too many or too few ciphers.
‘Now we’ll look at the barker,’ the manager said, leading us to the next section, the wood room. ‘Here the wood is suitably prepared for subsequent conversion into pulp,’ he added, as though delivering a technical lecture, pointing at the same time to four revolving drums, each twelve feet across by thirty-five feet long, their inner surfaces covered with steel spikes that tore the bark from the blocks. Not a soul was to be seen in the woodroom; and, as we proceeded through the mill, only an occasional figure was to be noted, wandering about the great roaring machines in a state of uncertainty, like a lost child in a forest. Perhaps the machines were too formidable, too intricate for human laborers to manipulate; perhaps they were controlled by the higher mind of abstract theory.
In one room there were rows of smoking ‘trench mortars’ that ground the wood to a pulp; in another room we saw chipping machines that in a few seconds reduced blocks of wood to shavings. And later we visited a building full of huge steel digesters, where, in a solution of sulphur dioxide, under high pressure, the so-called ligneous portions of the shavings were assimilated, leaving a long-fibred pulp. This last is the base of newsprint, while the ground pulp from the trench mortars is used as a matting over the interlaced fibres, ‘one-quarter Sulphite, three-quarters Mechanical,’ the manager told us, using trade terminology.
When the digesters have thoroughly mangled the shavings, and the trench mortars have ground the blocks to a porridge, the two forms of pulp pass through an elaborate purifying, mixing, and dyeing process. There are great vats scattered here and there, seemingly at random, on the floor, under the floor, suspended in midair, with pipes coiling, inosculating, winding from one vat to another, each one vying to twist itself in more contortions than its neighbor. The visitor comes upon an open trap doorway, and peering through it he sees an immense cauldron of steaming porridge, a twelve-foot spoon stirring it with the unconscious deliberation of a preoccupied housewife stirring the morning’s oatmeal. Elsewhere the porridge gurgles through troughs and pipes, spills into other vats, more spoons stir it; it is strained, dyed, thinned to a gruel; there are more vats, more spoons, until finally it gurgles down a gaping conduit, and we, the visitors, move on to the paper machines.
Though there was literally millions of dollars’ worth of machinery in the paper room, save only for ourselves not a soul was in sight. My first impression was of strange stillness which seemed intensified by the distant and now all but inaudible scream of the sawmill, the faint din from the chipping machines. In the paper room itself I could hear a high-pitched musical note that was euphonic in contrast to the cacophony in the other sections of the mill. Like a mountain torrent that, having thundered through its youth, on reaching the urbane lowlands demurely regulates itself to the conventional channel of well-mannered society, hums gently, disavows its turbulent youth, so the paper pulp spilled genteelly into the well-regulated machines. From one came a high, evenly sustained humming; from the other a note I believed to be one-fifth lower. They harmonized perfectly, and I was grateful for this. I mentioned it to the manager, but he responded only with a startled expression.
‘ Well, what are your impressions ? ’ he said as we walked away from the mill.
‘It is very wonderful,’ I replied truthfully, Barrister having intimated, by a glance, that I should speak. I wanted to add: ‘It is also very futile,’ and continue: ‘Why do you make newsprint at all? You are destroying the forests, employing nearly two thousand men — though I did n’t see thirty in the mill — who produce nothing but seven hundred tons of newsprint a day. On my island of PukaPuka, William, Benny, Bones, and I never see a newspaper: we have struggled along for years without seeing a newspaper or visiting a motion-picture theatre or listening to a radio, — three of the most subversive influences in modern society, — yet we have found that life continues satisfactorily. Here at Papertown you are wasting resources as well as human life to create a reading habit that the public would be better off without.
‘The whistle toots,’ I went on, figuratively raising my voice, a wild look, I fancy, coming into my eyes, ‘and all the hatchet-faced paper makers prance off to work; it toots again and they stop to eat; again, and they go back to work; again, and they slouch home.
‘Result: $8.48 per worker; $1,000,000 for the owners; tabloids for the public; death for the forests of British Columbia.’
Within a fortnight, nostalgia has so possessed Mr. Frisbie that he engaged passage on the first ship returning to the South Seas. — THE EDITORS