To Slade, it was as if the sun of life itself had been obliterated when the relentless south wind snatched from him the promise of a paradise on Vauhine. But, that was before he learned to understand that devotion with which your true man—white or brown—serves a friend.
H. DE VERE STACPOOLE
THERE are some things that the mind of man can recognize without fully comprehending, and one of those things is the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
When people say that the Pacific is spoilt by civilization they are right in so far as the larger islands are concerned.
They have motor-cars in Tahiti now and worse at FAnolulu, the B.P. boats bring trade to places that were once part of the kingdom of Fairyland, and the soap boiler has his hand on the tall groves, and the Rue de la Paix its agents by the pearl lagoons. But there are still islands in this vast world of waters where gin and petrol have not entirely displaced the fragrance of frangipanni and the milk of the drinking nuts, and where, for an hour, even still, one may forget the problems of life in a world where the east is simply the place that the sun comes up from and the west the place where he sinks.
Vauhine, for instance.
It is a very-small island, yet a high one. You can see it from a long way off at sea like a ship under press of darkcolored sails. Then, as you draw nearer, it broadens a bit at the base and the darkness becomes the green of foliage, immemorial woods planted by the hand of God before man dreamed of the first canoe, or woman of love or the first shell necklace.
Slade came to Vauhine when he was a man of thirtylive, hard-bitten and pretty hardly used by the world.
He came as trader and partner with a man named Lomax who cariied on in San Francisco. Lomax had his linger in all sorts of pies and this trade station at Vauhine was the smallest of the lot. The copra to be got there was just enough to keep a single station going, and Lomax would have left the thing to someone else, only he was fond of Slade, reckoned this was a post that would fit his limitations, and put him in.
It was a pleasant place for a man who had seen more 'than enough of the rough side of the world and of mischance.
The old bungalow belonging to the first trader—he dealt in sandalwood as well as copra—had gone out of repair and the patching of it gave the newcomer some-
thing to do. The garden also gave him work, all sorts of weeds had to be rooted out and new seeds planted and new fences put up. For months he was busy and happy, he was making a home. He told himself that, come what might, he would never leave Vauhine. Even if the trade station failed one could live there without money, food was everywhere to be had for the scratching of the soil or the dropping of a fish-hook in the sea, and he did not drink.
The last great fact was the linchpin of his chariot. Without it life in this paradise would have become degeneracya weariness developing into a horror.
ONE evening, six months or so after he arrived, Slade was leaning on the fence of his little garden, smoking and looking towards the sea, visible beyond the easuarinas and palms bordering the copra road by which the bungalow was placed.
Beyond and through the scene before him he was looking at his past.
London and New York and San Francisco, the businesses he had engaged in and had failed at, and the fact that, leaving Lomax aside, he had no friends. He had been a rolling stone and, more than that, he was not a man given to the easy making of friends.
There are some men, and sometimes they are rogues, who, if dropped in any part of the world, except maybe the Kalahari desert, will begin to make friends with all and sundry, attach other men to them as helpers and with their help make success.
It is a wonderful gift. Slade did not possess it. Maybe because he was too honest, maybe because he was standoffish by nature, reserved and ungiven to wearing his
heart on his sleeve as some m°n do.
However that may be, it was so, and being human, he sometimes recognized the fact of his isolation with regret, as on this evening.
Standing, pipe in mouth and lost in his thoughts, something beyond the far trees drew his attention back to earth.
Forms were moving against the light of the sea glow and they were coming along the copra road, forms of girls just up from bathing, the sunlight on their pareus, flowers fresh gathered in their hair.
Amidst them was Mircami, the daughter of Poni, the fisherman, a girl who had attracted Slade’s notice before on account of a variation from the ordinary type. The nose of Mircami, unlike that of Kinai or Kenusi or any of the others, was not broad across the nostrils, and it had a more definite bridge; and there were other points in the girl’s face that suggested European ancestry.
Having noticed her he had nearly forgotten her. This evening as she passed the gate with the others she looked at him.
Their eyes met.
She passed on with the rest and was lost to view beyond the tree ferns, and Slade, having watched her from sight, returned to his house.
He was no longer alone. Yet an hour—ten minutes ago —had you mentioned Mircami’s name he would have had to think for a moment before disentangling her from the other people of the island.
She had never glanced at him before to his knowledge, and now, all of a sudden, her eyes had looked straight into his heart and soul.
ON THE highest point of Vauhine, that is to say, on the cliff to the westward side, there is a stone, cut and chiselled by some long forgotten craftsman and left there, no man can say why, for there are no temple places at Vauhine, nor gods carved from rock as on Easter Island.
This stone, which is taller than the tallest man, and which is called by the Kanakas the Man Stone, stands like a silent outpost gazing out to sea, whilst the woods behind it whisper and shiver in the sea wind. It was here that Slade and Mircami used to meet, lovers pledged to marry one another when Adam, the missionary, paid his next visit to the island.
It was not what one might call a rapid combustion love affair. Slade had left behind him the fires of youth, and Mircami, owing perhaps to the European strain in her, was less inflammable than the ordinary island girl, more thoughtful and with far greater depth of feeling.
They would sit and talk, the blue sea far below and the pattering palms and whispering casuarinas behind them. She could speak a little English, having picked it up from the former trader and from Adams, and Slade proved such a good tutor that by the time the missionary schooner was due to call she could carry on a conversation on simple matters without difficulty.
It was a love affair and a language lesson at the same time, but none the less a love affair for that, and between these two a bond began to form, a bond more genuine and lasting than that of passionate love—the bond of affection.
They became part of one another as though their beings had flowed together to make one river.
ONE evening, a few days before the missionary schooner was due to arrive, Slade started out with Pari, one of the native boys, to fish beyond the reef.
The outrigger canoe was down by the water’s edge and Pari was overhauling the tackle, whilst Mircami, who had brought down the provisions and the drinking nuts, was busily engaged stowing them in packages tied to the outrigger gratings.
There is an unwritten law at Vauhine— you must not go beyond the reef without provisions and drink enough to last you for days. One never knows the chances of the sea, whose other name is the Great Thirst.
Mircami would have gone with Slade, only that she was no use in a canoe, and in fishing for the deep sea tiapu one must be an expert. She hated these expeditions that took him away from the island by even a mile or two, yet they pleased him and she said nothing, knowing that a word from her would make him give them up.
The drinking nuts tied to the gratings, she helped to run the little craft down till it was water borne, then she watched it sail off in the last of the sunset light and the flash of Slade’s steering paddle as he waved it to her whilst Pari broke out the sail.
Outside the reef the swell ran low and the thunder of the sea on the reef was less than usual. The sun was taking his plunge into an ocean that boiled up to him like molten gold, and the breeze that had blown strong at their departure from shore died, so that the mat sail flapped against the mast.
They were making for the fishing ground which lies a mile beyond the reef and where the depths run from forty to eighty fathoms. This is the place where the great fish congregate of nights and feed when they are so inclined. Two miles to northward of the fishing ground runs for a distance of four miles east and west a great submerged reef at a depth of twenty fathoms. It is known as the Great Reef, and in heavy weather at every seventh or eighth wave it breaks in a pother of foam that has whirled many a canoe to destruction.
Pari, though only sixteen, knew the inshore waters and all their traps and currents. Night made no difference to him, and now, with the sun gone and the stars rushing out, he took the direction of affairs, holding on till Vauhine showed, a blur on the night, seemingly a great way to southward.
“It is here,” said Pari, taking in his steering paddle and tying up the sail, whilst Slade got the stone anchor across the gunnel and dropped it, letting the rope run till thirty fathoms were out. “It is here and we will have luck, for the wind has gone and the sea has fallen asleep."
“Maybe,” said Slade.
Then, taking their places, bow and stern, they fished.
"They are not here,” said Slade after the lines had been down for nearly an hour.
“They are here,” said Pari, and almost on his word and as if in answer to it, a chug came to Slade’s line.
It ran out a couple of yards before he could get command of it and then the fight began, the great fish zig-zagging, sounding, now darting clear of the canoe, now astern, Pari with the paddle preventing the line from fouling the anchor rope, Slade steadily making good.
Then, like a great silver sword in a bath of phosphorus, bending, straightening, flashing, the great fish showed along side, whilst Pari, maul in hand, waited to make sure of the stroke.
Slade gave the word, the maul fell and the great fish stiffened after a last convulsion that covered the canoe and the fishermen in spray.
They hauled it on board and, re-baiting, dropped their lines. The dead calm held and from far off the reef of Vauhine sent its whisper across the starlit sea. Suddenly, the voice of the reef came louder.
“The wind has gone,” said Pari, after a minute or two had passed, “and yet the reef still cries out.”
As he spoke the canoe lifted under them to a steeper swell; it was as though a giant unseen hand had raised them swiftly but gently towards the stars, releasing them to fall back in the trough.
It was a big lift, for the slack of the anchor rope was eaten up by it, and the strain on the rope made the canoe heel to starboard, so that the outrigger lifted clear of the water.
Pari sprang on the outrigger gratings to steady them, and the voice of the Vauhine reef grew suddenly louder through the night, bringing with it another sound, the voice oí tormented trees.
“The wind!” cried Pari.
It came on them with a rush, the great south wind that blows when it listeth, that comes always from a clear sky and whose coming no man can foretell. It seized the sail and blew it out like a flag with the broken sheet flapping against the stars. It tried to capsize them, but Pari, with the knife he always carried, cut the anchor rope and, whilst Slade steadied the canoe with a paddle, recaptured the sail by a miracle and lashed it, giving only the smallest bunt to keep them before the wind.
To turn was impossible in that suddenly risen sea, they had to run or drown.
Neither of them spoke a word. Thought was wiped out by the wind and the grab that Death was making for them. They could only steer, whilst the stars looked down and the wind screamed against the guy ropes of the mast and the spray dashed over them as the stern dipped an inch too deep or the paddles missed a stroke.
Then Slade, who had recovered thought, cried out to the other:
“Pari, we are being swept away, the current is with us, unless we turn we can go back no more.”
“We cannot turn,” replied Pari, “the sea is too great. We are dead, for before us is the great reef.”
Slade had not thought of that. The thing scarcely troubled him. Death was nothing to being swept away from Vauhine and Mircami, yet they could not turn. Pari spoke the truth.
The wind had fallen but the sea was as great as ever. Nearly an hour passed and then, suddenly, Pari, who was in the bow, turned his head and flung two words back at the other:
On the top of the next swell Slade, half lifting himself, saw it, a long burst of foam stretching to east and west in the starlight, a white wall that rose and subsided, for, viewing the northern sea from the next swell top, it had vanished.
He knew that it was not permanent, that it came only with the larger waves, and that if they struck the spot in the interval they might escape with a tossing, but at this crucial moment escape or death seemed all one.
Suddenly and close to them, and against the full force of the wind, the great reef spoke, raved and flung up before them a wall of foam. The black sea in front of them seemed to have gone mad under the starlight, then the bottle glass well of the following trough took them: they sank into it, and when the spume-topped crest of the following hill raised them to look, the wall of foam was gone, leaving only acres of milk heaving to the stars.
Pari yelled, then he shouted to Slade to paddle hard and, urged by the wind in the bunt of the sail and the paddles, they shot into the heaving cream that fizzed like the wake of some steamer of a million tons and tossed them here and tossed them there as an idle woman might toss a ball from hand to hand.
The run of the swell, though broken, was not destroyed; it lifted them and sank them still, only now they were being
lifted and sunk, not in a world of jetblack starlit waters, but a world of boiling and hissing milk.
Six times were they lifted thus and then, almost at a stroke of the paddle, the black waters were around them again and the great white wastes behind.
They had escaped the reef waters, but only by a minute, for now from behind them came the boom of the breaking sea hard on the wind that followed them.
To Slade it was like the bang of a door, a door that cut him off forever from Vauhine and the woman he loved.
THE sun rose on a heaving swell all glittering gold in the east and windtossed violet in the west. The south wind still blew hard and strong and to turn the canoe was still impossible.
“We shall return no more,” said Pari, “and my fish spear and my lines will be used by Dakea; no more shall I pluck the feis in the great grove or pound the kava for Tomi. The sea has taken us.”
Slade said nothing.
Deep down in his heart there was a feeling that perhaps all was not lost; the escape from the reef waters was a good omen, and the splendid sun burning him now on the right shoulder gave him heart.
He was not like Pari. To Pari the open sea beyond sight of land was the utterly unknown and the utterly untrustable, a thing uncharted and holding only two sure things—death or separation from all that the islander holds dear.
At noon the wind fell to a strong breeze. An hour later, away on the port bow far across the sea, stood a white point that grew and broadened and became the sails of a ship, grew and lifted, till the dark hull showed, leaping clearer to sight moment by moment.
It was a topsail schooner steering as if to cut their course. She held on without change or sign like a blind thing that did not see them, never would see them; held on till the sun shone broad on her canvas, till the reef-points showed and the foam boiled round her fore front.
Then, as if touched by some magic finger, she altered in form ancTthe wind’ shivered from her sails.
Ten minutes later Slade was on her deck, she had taken the wind again and the canoe, cast adrift, was tossing in her wake. She was the Sea Horse, twenty days out from San Francisco and bound for Vana Vana.
TO LOSE a small Pacific island—unless you are a wealthy man able to hire a schooner—is like losing your purse in London.
There are no sea roads between the small islands; at Vana Vana you might wait twenty years before getting a ship to Vauhine, and at Vauhine you might wait twenty years before getting a ship to even the nearest island, Tiari.
The Sea Horse was going north at the will of Trade and at Vana Vana it left Slade and Pari, who had worked their passage and who, when they were put ashore, got jobs to keep them going till luck would bring a ship to take them to San Francisco.
Once in San Francisco, Slade could depend on Lomax to send him back to Vauhine. There was nothing to do but wait and hope and work.
It was a man’s job, with the figure of Mircami ever before him. Mircami, who, without doubt, fancied him dead and gone.
That thought nearly turned Slade’s force to despair: but he fought it down and then, one day, a ship came. She was bound for San Francisco and would take Slade with her, but the captain refused Pari.
He had no use for a Kanaka on board his ship, he said. The refusal was absolute. The choice was given to Slade to go, and leave Pari, or to remain.
To leave Pari helpless and hopeless of ever getting back to his beloved home.
It was then that, just as the great reef showed to the deep-rooting swell, the soul of Slade showed itself to his Maker.
He refused to leave Pari. Pari, who had steered with him through the storm; Pari, who in this world of men was as helpless as a child. The consequences of the refusal were worse to face than the great reef, yet he faced them and came through, for, the day before the ship sailed, two hands fell sick and had to be landed. The captain, short-handed, agreed to take Pari.
At San Francisco Lomax arranged for the earlier sailing of the schooner that he used for trade with Vauhine, and on a day six months and a week after his departure from the island, Slade found himself back within the reef and heard the anchor chain rumbling down to its echo from the cliffs and woods.
THE beach was crowded as he rowed ashore. Poni and Timeau, Keola, Le Moan, Narau, Kalia were there, and a host of others that he knew, but he did not see Mircami.
They greeted him and his companion, not as people returned from the shades, but from the land of good fortune. Nothing that the sea could do would have surprised those islanders, who had seen their canoe men come back apparently from the dead, who had seen the great storm of 1905, and who had seen the tidal wave that broke the following year, a wave that had climbed the cliffs on the windward side of the island, taking back with it a whole little village and its inhabitants.
“But Mircami,” cried Slade to her father, Poni, “where is she that she is not here?”
Then a woman’s voice piped up. “Mircami is no more. The sea has taken her.”
And then it all came out, told by this one and that, told in bits, picked up through the days and weeks that followed in little details.
It was as though some beautiful thing had been shattered to fragments, and Slade was always picking up the bits from this one and that, from Timeau, who told how Mircami had watched and watched, hoping against hope for the return of the canoe; from Keola, who told how she had spent the nights sighing and without sleep; and from Le Moan, who had seen her last, seen her wandering on the beach beneath the great cliff where the stone is, wandering and sighing, the sea wind blowing her pareu. That was four months ago, and that afternoon came the great squall that raised the sea on that beach till the old blow-holes that never spoke nowadays spouted.
“The sea has taken her,” said Le Moan; “nothing of her remains nor will be seen again.”
Slade absorbed all these details and more, took them in just as a stunned man takes in the air he still breathes.
He was done with life, yet he remained living. He even carried on his business as of old, and in such a way that the people around him began to forget his affection for Mircami. Those that remembered it came to the conclusion that his love for her could not have been great. But Pari was not one of these.
Slade had saved him from Vana Vana, and his affection for Slade gave him eyes to see the truth. Pari had a limited mind, but he would have descended into hell for the sake of Slade.
Dakea, he knew, had been in love with Mircami before Slade had captured her. Could it be that Dakea had killed her?
The idea was helped by the fact that a change had come upon Dakea. He chose, these days, to be alone as much as possible and if you were to call him suddenly by name he would start like a guilty man and look at you with fright in his eyes. At night, he would go into the woods, no man knew where.
One day Pari, who was nothing if not direct, took Dakea aside and charged him right out with the killing of Mircami and Dakea showed no anger.
“I have not killed her,” said he, “nor do I know how she died; but this I know, her spirit haunts the spot where he and she in the old days used to meet, and where I have seen them sitting hand in hand. It is the place on the cliff where the great stone is that fronts the sea; ask any man here and he will tell you the same, though he will not speak of it unless asked. No one will go near that spot now, even in the daytime—Timai has seen her, and others.”
“And you have seen her?” said Pari.
“I have seen her spirit, white as the glint of the wave that breaks on the reef, or the cloud that passes and is gone.” Pari considered deeply on this matter. He was brave, but to face the darkness of the woods at night was beyond him. The thing called him, for Mircami was, as one might say, part of Slade, and her unhappy spirit was without doubt seeking for him. He could not go by night to speak with it, yet he had courage to go at
full noon, creeping softly up”through the trees to see what might be seen.
NEXT day at noon Slade was leaving his house for the beach when out from the trees stepped Pari.
“Talea,” said Pari, using the name by which Slade was known, “much have we been together and many things have we undergone; your heart is my heart, and that which strikes Talea strikes Pari. There is still before us that which must be faced, even as we faced the great reef. Talea, Mircami waits for you.”
Slade drew back.
“By night her spirit waits where the great Man Stone watches the sea and by day it waits in the groves. Follow me, Talea.”
He turned and vanished amongst the trees, Slade following him, confused, filled with the vaguest and wildest imaginings.
He climbed, following Pari, who went before him, swift and noiseless as a shadow through the gloom of the trees, under the ever sighing casuarinas, through the palm belt where the light came broken by the dancing fronds, through the cane belt and the last of the sandals, up and up towards the place where he and she had so often met.
Here Pari, pausing and holding up his hand, drew aside the great leaves of a low-growing tree and revealed the ghostly form of a woman lying in the twilight, her face upon her arms—asleep.
It was Mircami.
Mircami not dead, but sleeping. Mircami who had vanished from the village and her people to live in solitude, alone with the memory of the man she loved.
And this was told to Slade by the bunch of feis which she had plucked for food and which lay close to her in the leaf shadows.
He stood for a moment, just for as long as a man may exist without breathing after having drawn a long breath.
Then he withdrew, stepping backward and leading Pari by the arm, holding him and leading him till they reached the great stone that faced the sea.
Here Slade fell on his knees, his eyes were closed, his lips moved but no sound came from them.
Then after a little Slade rose up and turning to the other:
“Pari,” said he, “she is not dead, but were I to wake her she would die. Y ou must go to her, wake her, and say, ‘Talea is not dead, we have come back, he and I, and he waits you in the village.’ Then little by little the truth will come to her, which would kill her were it to come at once.” Pari did not answer, he stood with his head lowered looking at the ground.
For him she was dead and a ghost. He had not dared to give her more than a glance, he had not seen the feis, his mind was not as the mind of Slade, he could not put things together. Mircami was dead, the people had said so. Dakea had seen her ghost, and he, Pari, had seen it, discovered its hiding place and led Slade to it, so that Slade might speak with it and give it rest and perhaps find rest himself. When the father of Tomai was drowned his spirit haunted the beach beyond the black rocks, and all went badly with Tomai till he met the spirit and talked to it and got instructions what to do in the matter of the great fish trap which Tomai’s brother claimed. When the dead come back they have need of speech with the living.
That was all very well in theory—but to speak with the dead—ay, that was beyond him, and the fact of Mircami’s death was with him a fixed idea. He would rather die than do this thing.
He stood with his head hung down, his dim soul struggling with itself, in confusion, all astray.
All astray, till the beach at Vana Vana came clear before his eyes, and the bearded ship’s captain who would not take him, and the face of Slade as he stood talking to the captain and refusing to go, leaving Pari behind.
Then suddenly, and as if breaking from a spell, throwing fear aside, yet with a face gray as ashes, Pari made for the trees.
EVEN still, and though he sees her with his eyes living in happiness with Talea, there lurks in the mind of Pari a suspicion that Mircami is not as other women; that, though living, she came back from the dead, and in this he is profoundly right—though not in the way he imagines.