Frisbie of the South Seas

Robert Dean Frisbie went to Tahiti in 1920, a young veteran of the First World War drawing a veteran’s disability pension because of his weak lungs. It was his intent to submerge himself in the slow, delightful current of the island life, just as it was his aspiration to write books of escape. But he was often at odds with himself and sometimes in difficulties with the white authorities. It was Frisbie’s good fortune to become fast friends with JAMES NORMAN HALL, and the friendship served him as a beacon in the dark days after the death of his native wife, Nga, when Frisbie found himself alone with the care of their children. A Fund is now being raised for the four Frisbie children, and to it Mr. Hall has contributed the royalties he received for this three-part serial. The Atlantic will be glad to forward the contributions of others who are in sympathy.



I RECEIVED from Frisbie an undated letter written at Suvorov sometime after the hurricane that almost swept away the island.


As my friend Dr. B., Ph.D., would say: “Describe your material culture.” I will describe Suvorov’s and the Frisbie family’s, now that I’ve had time to look around a bit. Suvorov’s may be dealt with in a word: Bones. It is, in sober truth, the mangled skeleton of the atoll that was. Most of the land the three white men were surveying when the Frisbie family arrived in January is now under the sea or in the bottom of the lagoon. A fragment of Anchorage Island remains, and here I poke around among the debris.

I am really glad that I lost all my household goods. I could have salvaged some of the junk, but, except for a few essential things such as pots and pans, I let it lic. I feel lighter in body as well as in spirit, having lost or discarded the odds and ends that weigh a man down as though they were Christian’s burden.

More than anything else I am glad that all my old manuscripts are lost. There must have been a million words of them: monstrous children begotten often enough when I had mistaken the heat of madness for flashes of genius. Now all of the humpbacked, pigeon-breasted, deaf, dumb, mute, blind-and-halt idiots are gone. Always there was the temptation to borrow from them. When my well-known creative genius lagged I would graft a malformed leg from one of the old children onto a newborn babe that might otherwise have turned into a well-formed offspring, but must now rest forever in the Museum of Monstrosities.

While scrambling over the piles of rubbish where once grew Suvorov’s jungle, I would now and again spy a typewritten sheet of paper, all but illegible. Stooping, I would pick it up and read, perhaps, Ages Long Ago: A Romance, by Robert Dean Frisbie. I would then drop the paper with a slight feeling of regret, all but lost in a stronger feeling of danger. This paper belongs to the past. Let the past be forgotten, lest it fasten its cumbrous fingers on the future.

But, alas, your letters went with the manuscripts. I had a collection of well over a hundred of them. I used to read them over and imagine that we were together talking as we did in the old days on your veranda at Anté, with a couple of Sarah’s tall frosted rum punches on the little table between us.

I did find one packet of six letters, of various years. Each of them had something special to tell me, here on Suvorov. In one of them you wrote, “You are two men — Ropati and Robert Dean Frisbie,” and you went on to suggest that I suppress the R.D.F. and invite the Ropati.

I believe that I am more than two men three or four, perhaps. But, Hall, Ropati is the only one that counts. If I die before you do I want you to remember Ropati and forget the others.


SOME time after this, Captain Andy Thomson picked up the Frisbie family and carried them to Manihiki atoll, in the northern Cook group. Lionel Trenn, an old friend of the three of us, was then Resident Agent on Manihiki, but shortly after Frisbie’s arrival there, Trenn was transferred to the island of Mangaia, in the southern Cooks. Frisbie’s next letters were written from Manihiki.


I don’t know what day of the week it is, nor what monlh, and I am not entirely sure of the year. However, the fishing is fine, and we had a nice fresh rain-bath this morning.

Tapuaikaha Islet is one of about five acres, three miles from Tauhunu Village, on the southwest reef. Johnny [his oldest daughter] is in the Village and I am fretting for her return. Trenn built a house on this islet and we have taken it over since he left. It is nice and lonely. Our only neighbors are sea birds, and land crabs scuttling around in the bush, now and then stopping to poke their eyes out and wave their claws around as though they were semaphoring. The wind moans in the trees, the sea birds squawk, the land crabs click their claws, the reef combers thunder away day and night. Remember the last verse of the poem you sent me from the low island in the Tuamotus?

These are the voices of Roatu :

The roar of the surf on the reef;

The wind in the fronds of the palms,

And the shouts of the children at play.

That’s how it is here. The voices of the children are those of Johnny, Jakcy, Elaine, and Little Nga.

Lord knows why I am living here except, I suppose, that as the years go by I find it more and more impossible to live among people. I am not working. I have done no work for six months and feel not the slightest desire ever to work again. I am at peace with the world and myself, and am quite content to catch a fish, read a book, smoke a pipe, and teach my children their three R’s. But I’m not doing so well with the latter and this worries me. I am not so certain as I was of my competence as a teacher.

My conscience troubles me only with respect to the children, not at all with respect to the indolence of Author Frisbie. I remember that there are thousands of books written every year, some of them as good, perhaps, as I could write. I was not stirred from my tranquillity even when I received a radiogram from Ober (there’s a wireless station here). The message read: “Weeks says Island story superb. Serializing. Ober.” Now if Ober had added: “Instead of cash, Atlantic sending you boat —exact dimensions Captain Slocum’s Spray. To be named ESCAPE.” ! ! ! ! The exclamation points tell better than words could do what the nature of my reaction would be.

I greatly enjoyed your letter about your schooner voyage with Nancy to the Gambier Islands. I’ve no doubt that she is a swell little daughter and was a perfect traveling companion. She may be nearly as fine a daughter as my Johnny. Hall, why in heck do we want to write mediocre books when we can create Number One daughters? We don’t write, primarily, to make money; our secret hope is to perpetuate ourselves a little way on into the future. Well, haven’t we, with our children? Caramba! With Nancy Ella and Johnny we have achieved immortality! Why try to win a sham importance through authorship? I tell you truly that every time my work is accepted I feel more than a charlatan — a downright cheat. When I read my work in print I blush to think that I have foisted such tripe on the public. I believe that the only book I could produce without a sense of shame would be one like that I planned years ago. If I bared my soul it would not be a printable book, but I would feel an honest man.

This letter was of the kind I liked most of all to receive from Ropati: when he was at ease and “looking inward” with a kind of amused detachment of spirit. It increased my longing to see him again in the flesh. We continually planned for meetings but something always interfered to prevent our paths from crossing. Nevertheless, we kept our friendship warm and bright by means of letters, although many of them went astray. He finished the one above quoted on the evening of the same day.

This morning I wanted only another helping of Lotii, if that is the plural. Now I am worried again. Why? Because Johnny is back from Tauhunu Village and I am reminded that I have duties to fulfill. Because I am so fond of Johnny she makes me miserable. I know that she should be in school somewhere and I can’t send her. She is much more of a European or an American than I am. She has naturally nice ways, fine perceptions, and a sense of integrity. I haven’t. The other children are little savages like their dad. Jakey and I get along fine because all we care about is fishing, eating, and sleeping. I don’t think he cares a whoop about aesthetic things. When I am enjoying the changes of light and color on the lagoon or palm fronds glinting in the moonlight, I don’t mention it to Jakey. Elaine, I think, will have Johnny’s capacity for becoming civilized, if ever she has a chance to learn what civilization is. Little Nga, like .Jakey and Papa, will probably remain savage.

My Johnny is nine, so your Nancy must be twelve. Hall, every year for you is one to the good. Nancy is catching up with you; you’re not leaving her behind, alone and lost. And Conrad is now sixteen, almost a young man. You should worry! But I should, and do, because my children are so much younger. Of course, I am much younger than you are, but my health isn’t so hot. However, Andy will soon be coming north again. The moment I see glorious old Andy’s gold-toothed smile there will be nothing wrong with my health.


CAPTAIN was one of the few friends that Ropati held in his heart of hearts. He was an unusual kind of South Sea schooner captain. An American by birth, he had been sailing the tropical Pacific since his middle teens. He had gone to sea as a boy, so his formal education had been scanty. Melville said that whaling ships had been his Harvard and Yale; copra schooners — the Tagua, the Tiaré Taporo, and various others — provided Captain Andy Thomson with his education, and well he had profited by it. He was endowed with a fine mind, and more than thirty years of omnivorous reading during his long sea voyages had given him a wide range of interests; but he was no bookworm. A superb seaman, Andy was loved and deeply respected by his Polynesian sailors, who know what first-class seamanship amounts to. But why do I speak of him in the past tense? He is still hale and hearty, still going to sea, and his stalwart sons, by a Rarotongan mother, have followed his profession. Early in 1943, Ropati and his children returned with Andy from Manihiki to Rarotonga.

In August of that year, my wife and daughter, Nancy, went to California to see our son, Conrad, who was in school near Santa Barbara. Failing other means of transportation, Colonel James M. Quinn kindly and generously granted them passage on a troop transport from the island of Bora Bora, in the Leeward Society group. Colonel Quinn was then in command of the U.S. Army troops occupying the base built at Bora Bora immediately after the Pearl Harbor disaster. Many troop transports, hospital ships, tankers, supply ships, and the like called at Bora Bora on their way to and from islands in the Western Pacific.

I felt lonely in my now empty house and had written Ropati about it.

RAROTONGA, November 10th, 1943
There are only two cures for the kind of loneliness you speak of: reunion with the family, or alcohol. I can sympathize with you. Every time I have been away from my family I have wallowed in the depths of depression, particularly in the hours of the early morning, upon waking and finding myself alone—no kids neatly dressed, faces washed, hair brushed, to say “Good morning, Papa!” But, Hall, what fools we are! In reality, we are suffering from an unacknowledged form of egotism. If you are like me, you imagine that your children are crying their eyes out for you; adding to their nightly prayers: “And dear Lord, please send me back to my papa!” The chances are that our children don’t give us two thoughts a day, or a week. They are going to parties and picture shows, having a wonderful time, free from the inhibiting influences of their dads. I am speaking here only of myself; no doubt it is different in your family.
Just now we are living in a pretty little house in Arorangi Village, not far from Andy’s place. We have no servant. Johnny and I do the cooking and the other children help with the housework. Johnny is getting to be a big girl now, and she has a mind of her own. At the present moment she is doing the family ironing. Like her dad, she is restless and wants to be on the move; but the restlessness is chiefly due to the fact that there is no picture show here. She became addicted to the vile habit of movie-going when she was with me in Fiji. I wish I’d never taken her to Suva. Imagine the effect upon the mind of a child whose life, until then, had been spent on Puka Puka.
Did you ever try writing a novel that you knew in advance was worthless? That’s what I’m doing now. Not in the hope of buying the boat. Why think of that any longer? I need food for the family, and store teeth for the dad to eat his share with.

Three years later this novel, published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, appeared under the litle Amaru. I recognized it at once as a story that Frisbie had tried to write a dozen years earlier. Either he had salvaged that old manuscript from sodden wreckage on Suvorov, or he had remembered enough of it to do what he had resolved never to do again: “graft a malformed leg from one of the old children onto a newborn babe.” The result was, as he had feared, another exhibit in the Museum of Monstrosities
About this same time in 1943, George Weller, an American war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, arrived at Tahiti to recover from malaria and poisoned feet, contracted in the jungles of New Guinea and Bougainville Island. He had come via Rarotonga, where he had become acquainted with Frisbie. He gave me some disquieting news about Frisbie’s health and a touching account of his relationship with his children. Johnny, he said, although only ten, was the responsible head of the family and looked after her younger brother and sisters far better than her father was able to do.
In January, 1944, I followed my family to California and remained in the U.S.A. until the early autumn of 1945. During this time Ropati and I lost touch, and it was not until the end of the year that I heard from him once more.

NAVY DISPENSARY, TCTUILA, November 25th, 1945
Off and on, I’ve been in hospital since the first of last April. Three times I’ve been so close to death that I know what it is like to die. They have given me seven blood transfusions, and I have lost count of the plasma and dextrose. The trouble has not been definitely diagnosed. I get better, as I now am; then, without warning, I become dizzy, faint, and lose as much as a gallon of blood in one hemorrhage. The only thing that really worries me is the fate of my children if I die. It is appalling to think of my beloved Johnny becoming a little whore on the streets of Pago. They don’t make daughters any finer than Florence Ngatokorua. (Johnny) Frisbie.
Oh, for the peace and stillness of Puka Puka. This dispensary is a madhouse. Think of it! Every day at noon they turn on the radio and it blares on until ten at night. And they play nothing but the awfulest tripe. I really believe that Bob Hope, Charlie McCarthy, et al. are causing my hemorrhages. Oh, Hall, I gotta get out of here!
Johnny and Jakey have just returned from a voyage around the Samoan group. They had two nights ashore at Swains Island. Their report makes me determined to go there. I saw it for a day in 1935. Lord give me strength to make it once more!

Frisbie had come to Samoa from Manihiki, in a Navy plane, at a time when it was thought that he was dying. The children followed him later, also by plane, a great adventure for them. As with so many thousands of island children, the war had completely altered their way of life. Children who had never seen a ship larger than a copra schooner became suddenly familiar with great shipsof-war, submarines, tankers, troopships, hospital ships, to say nothing of aeroplanes. They lived as did their parents, in a kind of daze, not knowing which was reality: the old changeless life in which from birth to death their horizons were the same circles of sea and sky, or the new life suddenly foisted upon them when so many wore shunted from place to place and from island to island as the necessities of war demanded. In the case of the Frisbie children, it was their father’s health that demanded these changes. He was in a precarious condition throughout this year, sometimes in hospital, sometimes living in the village of Samatau, thirty miles from Apia. From this latter place he wrote, on March 31st, 1946: —

I have been fairly well for two months. I find it possible to work for about three hours every other day. When I am strong enough it is important that I help Johnny with her book. We expect it will be finished on her birthday, July 19th. I will then make a clean copy for her and mail it in August. So, what with being somewhat weak and my attention concentrated on transitions, chapter subjects, topic sentences, and general editing for Johnny, I have had no time to work on my own. However, Damn Sails North is half done, and I expect to finish it between September 1st and December 31 st. Now that I am again a teetotaler, I find that, even with my hours curtailed, I can do more and better work than formerly. But of course it is Johnny’s book that interests me. Hall, Johnny is making the grade where I have failed, as a writer. Recognition of this fact has given me a new lease on life. I mean to live on, now, to see her grow and develop. She’s young, of course, only thirteen, but shows wonderful promise as a writer. Her story is the simply told story of her life. In the first chapter she repeats what her mother told her of her birth in Tahiti. Then, in Chapter Two . . .

Ropati went on to outline Johnny’s book, chapter by chapter. He rejoiced in her odd English expressions, in the way she mixed English with Puka Pukan speech. She was not yet able, of course, to think in English, but that would come. Meanwhile, here she was, about to publish her first book when only thirteen years old. Her life was all before her, and starting a career of authorship so early, she would go far. If’ anything should happen to him, Johnny would be able to support, her brother and sisters by writing. If this first book were a success, and it would be, plans were already made for the second. It was to be a child’s book called jerry, the Small Breeze, telling of the dangerous and exciting adventures of a cat’s-paw of wind, always trying to escape from the Big Wind who would swallow him whole. In the end the Big Wind catches him, and he finds that the frightful Ogre is no more than a great company of little breezes like himself.


I RECEIVED one other letter from Ropati, in 1946, written from Samatau.

I am still here, living on a diet of milk and oranges which is doing me more good than all the doctors and their panaceas. They nearly killed me in Pago. Johnny is with me just now, working on her book. We don’t know just where and how to end it. Maybe something will work out, like my conveniently dying to bring it to a proper climax.

I have met here an English woodcut artist who is writing a book about his six-month voyage through Polynesia, to be illustrated by himself. I could have given him some pointers about where to go and what to see, but his attitude toward me is so plainly and obviously contemptuous that I snapped into my shell like a hermit crab. He regards me as a sort of beachcomber author, wearing a tinsel halo of '’Romance.” Why is it that I haven’t the personality of an author? I suppose it’s because I am not respectable. No one but you, myself, and Johnny takes me at all seriously.

Enough of this. I’ll hope to receive a good letter from you by Andy, with all the news from Tahiti, particularly news about yoursell, Sarah, Nancy, and Conrad. Wouldn’t our children be surprised if they knew of the deep and genuine interest taken in their welfare by their fathers’ old friends? Or perhaps they would think it quite natural. I haven’t seen Conrad and Nancy since they were little more than babies, and you have never seen my youngest three. If only I could go to Tahiti, sit on your veranda, and dispute with you the privilege as to who does the lion’s share of the talking! Here I feel spiritually blighted. It is only keen interest in Johnny’s book that keeps me going.

Hall, we’ve got to meet once more, somewhere, somehow.

I, too, longed for this meeting. World War II had ended, but instead of the expected renewal ot trade in the Pacific, steamship lines resuming their old schedules between continents and inter-island services being re-established once more, the great Mother of Oceans seemed to have expanded to what she had been in the days before Wallis and Cook and Bougainville had explored her solitudes. Personally, I liked this, although the all but complete dearth of shipping was attended by a good deal of inconvenience to people living, supposedly, in the twentieth century. I had often feared that the world was shrinking to the size of a withered orange, and with the tremendous advance made in aviation I had expected it to shrink still more, after World War II. Just the contrary happened. There was far more shipping— in the eastern Pacific, at least — one hundred years ago, in the days of the whaling ships, than there is today. As for planes, in so far as French Oceania is concerned, they might never have been invented. Americans, who take it for granted that the whole world is airminded, should visit French Oceania, supposing that they could find some means of coming here. The Polynesians of a thousand years ago had better methods of communication. Nevertheless, letters did occasionally—and still do — reach their destinations, sometimes in the same year in which they were posted. A letter from Ropati, from Letogo, Western Samoa, and dated January 6th, 1947, reached Tahiti in May of that year. I was then in the U.S.A.

Years ago when you returned from Iceland, having failed to write the book for Harper, you told me that a man is a fool to take money in advance for work. I have been guilty of that same foolishness. I accepted a $2000 advance from Doubleday, and not a day’s peace have I known since. I am continually worried lest Dawn Sails North fail to come up to scratch. For the past two months I have written virtually nothing. Now, in desperation, I am moving the Frisbie family back to the Cook Islands. If we can get to Mangaia, the setting of Part III of the story, I believe I can finish the damned thing, after a fashion.

Johnny’s book, Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka, has been with the Atlantic Monthly for the past six weeks. I’m afraid it’s a washout, due to the fact that Robert Dean Frisbie, mortal enemy of RopatiTané, did too much meddling with it.

We have been living here on a cattle ranch where they have horses to ride. There is a picture show twice a week, and a pretty good school. The kids have been very happy, but I’m a sick man, HallTane. I hope to last two or three years longer, for their sakes, but I think it unlikely. I have never recovered from all those hemorrhages. Six months or a year in the U.S.A. might help. I could turn myself over to the Navy doctors in Pago Pago; and since I am a “veteran” of World War I, they would be obliged to send me home. But where could I leave the children? There is no one this side of Puka Puka that could, or would, take care of them should I leave, or die. This is why I want to return soon to Rarotonga. Should I die here, Johnny’s immediate fate would be ghastly. From the Cook Islands the children will at least be able to return to Nga’s relatives on Puka Puka. They will lose all that I have been able to give them in training and schooling, but at least they will be able to live as healthy savages. Who knows? The Puka Pukan kind of savagery might be far better for them than the “civilized" savagery prevailing in the world today. Certainly, they would not be living under the frightful conditions of the waifs and strays in Europe.

Hall, I am so weary and weak. If only I could get my old energy back! I enclose a snapshot of myself and the four children. Aren’t they a fine lot? Do you wonder that. I’m proud of them?

Here is some good news and I am not able to enjoy it as I want to. Amaru, the story that you have not yet written me about, has been translated into Swedish. I have just received a copy of the Swedish edition, the finest job of printing that I have seen. The paper is exquisite, the type attractive and clear. It is a far better job of bookmaking than they do in the U.S.A.

Now for the second item of good news. Madame Gazel, wife of the French Minister to New Zealand, is translating my Book of Puka Puka into French. She found a copy of it by chance in the library of the cargo steamer in which she sailed from San Francisco to Auckland. Having learned my whereabouts, she wrote, asking permission to make the translation, which I gladly granted. In another letter received from her recently, she writes that the work is nearly finished. And she further says: —

“As a writer you show true talent. The whole life on the small island of Puka Puka is depicted in an amazingly vivid way. I seem to know Mama, old William, Sea Foam, and the other characters. You have the same talent of the raccourci which I admire in our French writer Colette, describing a scene or a character in a few words.

“What a pity that you have not written more! But it is never too late to do this, and I have hope of being your translator once again. I cannot tell you how great a pleasure the work gives me.”

How’s that? I have talent. I am being translated into the foreign languages, including the Scandinavian. I’m a bit surprised about Amaru. I didn’t think that was so hot. But it Sweden likes it, far be it from me to complain.

The photograph enclosed was the first I had seen of Ropati’s children and the first of himself since one he had sent me in 1929 when The Book of Puka Puka was published. There was a woeful contrast between the Ropati of 1929 and the one of 1947; it told me, far more poignantly than the letters had done, what he had gone through. His hair was still thick and dark, but the face was that of a youthful old man. It was haggard and drawn, with an expression upon it of deep suffering. But in his eyes there is a look of pride as he sits in the midst of his children with his arms around the shoulders of Little Nga and Johnny. The children are sturdy, healthy, bright-faced youngsters, a family that any father might well be proud of. Jakey and Nga show more of the mother’s blood, Elaine and Johnny more of the father’s. Ropati had described them so well in his letters that it seemed to me that I would have known them for his children even though he had not been sitting with them and I had come upon the photograph by chance. Johnny’s face in particular interested me. I could well understand why she was the very apple of her father’s eye.


I WAS again in the U.S.A. nearly the whole of the following year. My daughter, Nancy, was married in Santa Barbara on April 5th, 1947. I sent an announcement of the wedding to Rarotonga. Some months later I received the following letter: —

Hall, I wish I might have been there, but it’s just as well that I couldn’t come. What would I be doing in a church named All-Saints-by-the-Sea? As far as that goes, how did yon manage to get in, even for the marriage of your own daughter? But I must have been there in spirit, even though I didn’t know the wedding was forthcoming. Now that the announcement has come, I have pictured the ceremony down to the small details.

I wish I could, somehow, give Johnny three of my years and make her seventeen. Her book will soon be published by the Macmillan Company. If it sells well, maybe Johnny can stake her dad to a trip to the U.S. Six months up there would do me a lot of good, and I want Johnny to have it, to straighten out her sense of values. Lord! but I do want her to go north. It seems to me that the past fifteen years of my life have been lived solely for her. She is a strange and remarkable girl, Hall. She is very beautiful, I think, and not in the least vain or self-conscious. She is modest, self-reliant, and has a strong sense of responsibility. She takes care of the house, does all the cooking and three quarters of my typing. I am writing this letter, but she does most of my correspondence. In a month or two she should be pretty good in shorthand; then I can lie back for good and dictate my next book. Her tastes are like mine, and so she helps me a great deal in my writing. She is able to sense the moods I try to express and helps me to do so.

In fact, she is the only interest I have in life just now, so I find little pleasure in writing about anything else. But this doesn’t mean that I do not love the rest of the gang. I dote on them. They mean just as much to me as Johnny so far as love goes; but from Johnny I have intellectual companionship as well.

I’ll write again when I have finished Dawn Soils North for good and all. It has been impossible to write letters the past two years. When I try to, a sort of blocking psychosis sets in and I am unable to think clearly .

Anyway, old friend, I hope we may meet once more, this side of the Stygian Creek.

I returned to Tahiti at the end of 1947, and found a letter from Ropati written less than a month before, and mailed in the Papeete post office.

DEAR HALL:I came with Andy on the Tiaré Taporo. We both thought you were home again. I know how you will feel when you read this letter, and you can imagine how I feel writing it. I went as near to your house as the bridge over the little stream on the west side. I sat on the parapet for half an hour, but I couldn’t go into the house without you there.
Andy and I have been here for about three weeks. He couldn’t wait, of course, and we learned that you and Sarah would not arrive until around New Year’s.
Tahiti was like a “Lost Island to me, after an absence of fifteen years. Of course there were the same glorious mountains. Most likely they look no different now than they did when Polynesians first saw them, a thousand years ago. They are not even conscious of the human insects living on the fringe of lowland around the coast. I found no friendly fellow insect except good old Spies. All the rest were fonctionnaire insects; Papeete seems to be crawling with them. I don’t wonder that they want to get away from France, but the Tahitians must be fed up, having to pay for their transportation halfway around the world and to support them after they get here.
I walked along the waterfront. It was good to see the copra schooners and cutters still moored there. I saw two or three tolerable small boats, but I’m no longer interested in them.
I hate to leave this note, but you’ll know we’ve been here, so I guess I’d better.

A few months later I received a letter from Captain Andy, telling me of the Tahiti visit and how Ropati had wandered aimlessly along the streets of Papeete, looking for a few old friends. “With Nordhoff, Jones, and Russell dead and you not there, Ropati was like a mute at a funeral. His health is none too good, but he has been taking better care of himself lately. His eldest daughter, Johnny, has grown up to be a lovely girl. Some day I hope she’ll marry a first-class fellow who will make her a good husband. She deserves the best.”
Ropati’s last letter was written from Rarotonga, in September, 1948. The greater part of it was concerned with Johnny’s book, which had been published earlier in the year by the Macmillan Company under the title Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka. He then mentioned his own manuscript that he had been so long in finishing.

After working two and one-half years on Dawn Sails North and producing a minor Moby-Dick — or, anyway, a book nearly as long— Doubleday compelled me to delete 250 pages and add more plot. Having advanced me money, they had me by the what-you-call-’ems, and I couldn’t, with honor, refuse. So, if you read Dawn Sails North — and I can’t recommend it — bear in mind that it’s not the book I wanted it to be.
After these many years I’ve taken your advice and am reading Chaucer. I didn’t suppose I could, but I’m surprised to find how easily I learned his English. I still read Proust. Recently I finished Volume VII, The Past Recaptured. It was my fourth rereading of the whole work. Now I’m going to give my set to a friend and keep on with Chaucer. It looks as though I’d gotten mixed up in ray reading, going from the twentieth century back to the fourteenth. You know how I feel about Proust, but I have to admit that there’s more health in a page of Chaucer than in the whole seven volumes of Proust. And health is what I need just now.


ONE day late in November, 1948, I went into Papeete to do some errands. There was a crowd of people on the waterfront. I learned that a wireless message had been received only an hour before, announcing the arrival of a U.S. Navy plane coming from Samoa, and bringing the French Inspector of Colonies to Tahiti. The plane, routed via Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, was expected at any moment. We soon sighted it, far off to the southwest. It made a beautiful “landing,” so-called, in the lagoon, and the pilot boat went out to bring the passengers ashore. Among them was my old friend George Weller, of the Chicago Daily News.

When I recovered a little from my surprise and pleasure at seeing him, Weller said: “Hall, I’ve bad news for you. Robert Frisbie is dead.” He had no details, for the plane had remained at Rarotonga only long enough to refuel. He had not seen Ropati’s children, but had met my friend Lionel Trenn, whose hastily written letter George had brought.

Weller was obliged to go with the Inspector of Colonies to call upon the Governor of Tahiti. During his absence I went to the park by the waterfront to read Trenn’s letter. Ropati had died very suddenly only ten days before. Trenn concluded: “ It’s a sad blow for all of us here, and especially for his children. A Rarotonga woman has taken them into her home for the present. You will not be surprised to learn that Ropati died penniless and deeply in debt.”

Although I had long prepared myself for such news, the preparation counted for nothing. His last letter had been received only a month before.

It was in this same park that we had sat, talking, throughout the afternoon on the day of our first meeting nearly thirty years before: and by the sea wall fronting the park he had tried to dream his boat into reality. I could hear his voice, saying: “She’s sturdy. Nothing for speed, but that doesn’t matter. I’m in no hurry. And the important thing is that I can handle her myself.” Many a time during the intervening years I had seen her there, a phantom ship, waiting for him.

Now he was standing by the sea wall, no longer old and sick and weary, for Death had transfigured him. Young Ropati, the Dreamer, was ready at last to embark. He unmoored his phantom ship, drew in the varnished gangplank, hoisted sail, and steered for the passage to the open sea. He turned to give me a farewell wave of the hand. I watched the little ghost-ship growing smaller and smaller as he headed west-by-north for the ghost of an island — Suvorov; or Frisbie’s Island, as he had loved to call it.

( The End)