The skipper thrust his hand into one of his trouser pockets and with difficulty, for they were not at the sides but in front and he was a portly man, pulled out a large silver watch.
He looked at it and then looked again at the declining sun.
The Kanaka at the wheel gave him a glance, but did not speak.
The skipper’s eyes rested on the island they were approaching.
A white line of foam marked the reef.
He knew there was an opening large enough to get his ship through, and when they came a little nearer he counted on seeing it.
They had nearly an hour of daylight still before them. In the lagoon the water was deep and they could anchor comfortably.
The chief of the village which he could already see among the coconut trees was a friend of the mate’s, and it would be pleasant to go ashore for the night.
The mate came forward at that minute and the skipper turned to him.
“We’ll take a bottle of booze along with us and get some girls in to dance,” he said.
“I don’t see the opening,” said the mate.
He was a Kanaka, a handsome, swarthy fellow, with somewhat the look of a later Roman emperor, inclined to stoutness; but his face was fine and clean-cut.
“I’m dead sure there’s one right here,” said the captain, looking through his glasses.
“I can’t understand why I can’t pick it up.
Send one of the boys up the mast to have a look.”
The mate called one of the crew and gave him the order.
The captain watched the Kanaka climb and waited for him to speak.
But the Kanaka shouted down that he could see nothing but the unbroken line of foam.
The captain spoke Samoan like a native, and he cursed him freely.
“Shall he stay up there?” asked the mate.
“What the hell good does that do?” answered the captain.
“The blame fool can’t see worth a cent.
You bet your sweet life I’d find the opening if I was up there.”
He looked at the slender mast with anger.
It was all very well for a native who had been used to climbing up coconut trees all his life.
He was fat and heavy.
“Come down,” he shouted.
“You’re no more use than a dead dog.
We’ll just have to go along the reef till we find the opening.”
It was a seventy-ton schooner with paraffin auxiliary, and it ran, when there was no head wind, between four and five knots an hour.
It was a bedraggled object; it had been painted white a very long time ago, but it was now dirty, dingy, and mottled.
It smelt strongly of paraffin and of the copra which was its usual cargo.
They were within a hundred feet of the reef now and the captain told the steersman to run along it till they came to the opening.
But when they had gone a couple of miles he realised that they had missed it.
He went about and slowly worked back again.
The white foam of the reef continued without interruption and now the sun was setting.
With a curse at the stupidity of the crew the skipper resigned himself to waiting till next morning.
“Put her about,” he said.
“I can’t anchor here.”
They went out to sea a little and presently it was quite dark.
When the sail was furled the ship began to roll a good deal.
They said in Apia that one day she would roll right over; and the owner, a German-American who managed one of the largest stores, said that no money was big enough to induce him to go out in her.
The cook, a Chinese in white trousers, very dirty and ragged, and a thin white tunic, came to say that supper was ready, and when the skipper went into the cabin he found the engineer already seated at table.
The engineer was a long, lean man with a scraggy neck.
He was dressed in blue overalls and a sleeveless jersey which showed his thin arms tatooed from elbow to wrist.
“Hell, having to spend the night outside,” said the skipper.
The engineer did not answer, and they ate their supper in silence.
The cabin was lit by a dim oil lamp.
When they had eaten the canned apricots with which the meal finished the Chink brought them a cup of tea. The skipper lit a cigar and went on the upper deck.
The island now was only a darker mass against the night.
The stars were very bright.
The only sound was the ceaseless breaking of the surf.
The skipper sank into a deck-chair and smoked idly.
Presently three or four members of the crew came up and sat down.
One of them had a banjo and another a concertina.
They began to play, and one of them sang.
The native song sounded strange on these instruments.
Then to the singing a couple began to dance.
It was a barbaric dance, savage and primeval, rapid, with quick movements of the hands and feet and contortions of the body; it was sensual, sexual even, but sexual without passion.
It was very animal, direct, weird without mystery, natural in short, and one might almost say childlike.
At last they grew tired.
They stretched themselves on the deck and slept, and all was silent.
The skipper lifted himself heavily out of his chair and clambered down the companion.
He went into his cabin and got out of his clothes.
He climbed into his bunk and lay there.
He panted a little in the heat of the night.
But next morning, when the dawn crept over the tranquil sea, the opening in the reef which had eluded them the night before was seen a little to the east of where they lay.
The schooner entered the lagoon.
There was not a ripple on the surface of the water.
Deep down among the coral rocks you saw little coloured fish swim.
When he had anchored his ship the skipper ate his breakfast and went on deck.
The sun shone from an unclouded sky, but in the early morning the air was grateful and cool.
It was Sunday, and there was a feeling of quietness, a silence as though nature were at rest, which gave him a peculiar sense of comfort.
He sat, looking at the wooded coast, and felt lazy and well at ease.
Presently a slow smile moved his lips and he threw the stump of his cigar into the water.
“I guess I’ll go ashore,” he said.
“Get the boat out.”
He climbed stiffly down the ladder and was rowed to a little cove.
The coconut trees came down to the water’s edge, not in rows, but spaced out with an ordered formality. They were like a ballet of spinsters, elderly but flippant, standing in affected attitudes with the simpering graces of a bygone age.
He sauntered idly through them, along a path that could be just seen winding its tortuous way, and it led him presently to a broad creek.
There was a bridge across it, but a bridge constructed of single trunks of coconut trees, a dozen of them, placed end to end and supported where they met by a forked branch driven into the bed of the creek.
You walked on a smooth, round surface, narrow and slippery, and there was no support for the hand.
To cross such a bridge required sure feet and a stout heart.
The skipper hesitated.
But he saw on the other side, nestling among the trees, a white man’s house; he made up his mind and, rather gingerly, began to walk.
He watched his feet carefully, and where one trunk joined on to the next and there was a difference of level, he tottered a little.
It was with a gasp of relief that he reached the last tree and finally set his feet on the firm ground of the other side.
He had been so intent on the difficult crossing that he never noticed anyone was watching him, and it was with surprise that he heard himself spoken to.
“It takes a bit of nerve to cross these bridges when you’re not used to them.”
He looked up and saw a man standing in front of him.
He had evidently come out of the house which he had seen.
“I saw you hesitate,” the man continued, with a smile on his lips, “and I was watching to see you fall in.”
“Not on your life,” said the captain, who had now recovered his confidence.
“I’ve fallen in myself before now. I remember, one evening I came back from shooting, and I fell in, gun and all.
Now I get a boy to carry my gun for me.”
He was a man no longer young, with a small beard, now somewhat grey, and a thin face.
He was dressed in a singlet, without arms, and a pair of duck trousers.
He wore neither shoes nor socks.
He spoke English with a slight accent.
“Are you Neilson?” asked the skipper.
“I’ve heard about you. I thought you lived somewheres round here.”
The skipper followed his host into the little bungalow and sat down heavily in the chair which the other motioned him to take.
While Neilson went out to fetch whisky and glasses he took a look round the room.
It filled him with amazement.
He had never seen so many books.
The shelves reached from floor to ceiling on all four walls, and they were closely packed.
There was a grand piano littered with music, and a large table on which books and magazines lay in disorder.
The room made him feel embarrassed.
He remembered that Neilson was a queer fellow.
No one knew very much about him, although he had been in the islands for so many years, but those who knew him agreed that he was queer.
He was a Swede.
“You’ve got one big heap of books here,” he said, when Neilson returned.
“They do no harm,” answered Neilson with a smile.
“Have you read them all?” asked the skipper.
“Most of them.”
“I’m a bit of a reader myself. I have the Saturday Evening Post sent me regler.”
Neilson poured his visitor a good stiff glass of whisky and gave him a cigar.
The skipper volunteered a little information.
“I got in last night, but I couldn’t find the opening, so I had to anchor outside.
I never been this run before, but my people had some stuff they wanted to bring over here.
Gray, d’you know him?”
“Yes, he’s got a store a little way along.”
“Well, there was a lot of canned stuff that he wanted over, an’ he’s got some copra.
They thought I might just as well come over as lie idle at Apia.
I run between Apia and Pago-Pago mostly, but they’ve got smallpox there just now, and there’s nothing stirring.”
He took a drink of his whisky and lit a cigar.
He was a taciturn man, but there was something in Neilson that made him nervous, and his nervousness made him talk.
The Swede was looking at him with large dark eyes in which there was an expression of faint amusement.
“This is a tidy little place you’ve got here.”
“I’ve done my best with it.”
“You must do pretty well with your trees.
They look fine.
With copra at the price it is now.
I had a bit of a plantation myself once, in Upolu it was, but I had to sell it.”
He looked round the room again, where all those books gave him a feeling of something incomprehensible and hostile.
“I guess you must find it a bit lonesome here though,” he said.
“I’ve got used to it. I’ve been here for twenty-five years.”
Now the captain could think of nothing more to say, and he smoked in silence.
Neilson had apparently no wish to break it.
He looked at his guest with a meditative eye.
He was a tall man, more than six feet high, and very stout.
His face was red and blotchy, with a network of little purple veins on the cheeks, and his features were sunk into its fatness.
His eyes were bloodshot.
His neck was buried in rolls of fat.
But for a fringe of long curly hair, nearly white, at the back of his head, he was quite bald; and that immense, shiny surface of forehead, which might have given him a false look of intelligence, on the contrary gave him one of peculiar imbecility.
He wore a blue flannel shirt, open at the neck and showing his fat chest covered with a mat of reddish hair, and a very old pair of blue serge trousers.
He sat in his chair in a heavy ungainly attitude, his great belly thrust forward and his fat legs uncrossed.
All elasticity had gone from his limbs.
Neilson wondered idly what sort of man he had been in his youth.
It was almost impossible to imagine that this creature of vast bulk had ever been a boy who ran about.
The skipper finished his whisky, and Neilson pushed the bottle towards him.
The skipper leaned forward and with his great hand seized it.
“And how come you in these parts anyways?” he said.
“Oh, I came out to the islands for my health.
My lungs were bad and they said I hadn’t a year to live.
You see they were wrong.”
“I meant, how come you to settle down right here?”
“I am a sentimentalist.”
Neilson knew that the skipper had not an idea what he meant, and he looked at him with an ironical twinkle in his dark eyes.
Perhaps just because the skipper was so gross and dull a man the whim seized him to talk further.
“You were too busy keeping your balance to notice, when you crossed the bridge, but this spot is generally considered rather pretty.”
“It’s a cute little house you’ve got here.”
“Ah, that wasn’t here when I first came.
There was a native hut, with its beehive roof and its pillars, overshadowed by a great tree with red flowers; and the croton bushes, their leaves yellow and red and golden, made a pied fence around it.
And then all about were the coconut trees, as fanciful as women, and as vain.
They stood at the water’s edge and spent all day looking at their reflections.
I was a young man then–Good Heavens, it’s a quarter of a century ago–and I wanted to enjoy all the loveliness of the world in the short time allotted to me before I passed into the darkness.
I thought it was the most beautiful spot I had ever seen.
The first time I saw it I had a catch at my heart, and I was afraid I was going to cry.
I wasn’t more than twenty-five, and though I put the best face I could on it, I didn’t want to die.
And somehow it seemed to me that the very beauty of this place made it easier for me to accept my fate.
I felt when I came here that all my past life had fallen away, Stockholm and its University, and then Bonn: it all seemed the life of somebody else, as though now at last I had achieved the reality which our doctors of philosophy–I am one myself, you know–had discussed so much.
‘A year,’ I cried to myself. ‘I have a year.
I will spend it here and then I am content to die.'”
“We are foolish and sentimental and melodramatic at twenty-five, but if we weren’t perhaps we should be less wise at fifty.”
“Now drink, my friend.
Don’t let the nonsense I talk interfere with you.”
He waved his thin hand towards the bottle, and the skipper finished what remained in his glass.
“You ain’t drinking nothin,” he said, reaching for the whisky.
“I am of a sober habit,” smiled the Swede.
“I intoxicate myself in ways which I fancy are more subtle.
But perhaps that is only vanity. Anyhow, the effects are more lasting and the results less deleterious.”
“They say there’s a deal of cocaine taken in the States now,” said the captain.
“But I do not see a white man often,” he continued, “and for once I don’t think a drop of whisky can do me any harm.”
He poured himself out a little, added some soda, and took a sip.
“And presently I found out why the spot had such an unearthly loveliness.
Here love had tarried for a moment like a migrant bird that happens on a ship in mid-ocean and for a little while folds its tired wings.
The fragrance of a beautiful passion hovered over it like the fragrance of hawthorn in May in the meadows of my home.
It seems to me that the places where men have loved or suffered keep about them always some faint aroma of something that has not wholly died.
It is as though they had acquired a spiritual significance which mysteriously affects those who pass.
I wish I could make myself clear.” He smiled a little.
“Though I cannot imagine that if I did you would understand.”
“I think this place was beautiful because here I had been loved beautifully.”
And now he shrugged his shoulders.
“But perhaps it is only that my æsthetic sense is gratified by the happy conjunction of young love and a suitable setting.”
Even a man less thick-witted than the skipper might have been forgiven if he were bewildered by Neilson’s words.
For he seemed faintly to laugh at what he said.
It was as though he spoke from emotion which his intellect found ridiculous.
He had said himself that he was a sentimentalist, and when sentimentality is joined with scepticism there is often the devil to pay.
He was silent for an instant and looked at the captain with eyes in which there was a sudden perplexity.
“You know, I can’t help thinking that I’ve seen you before somewhere or other,” he said.
“I couldn’t say as I remember you,” returned the skipper.
“I have a curious feeling as though your face were familiar to me.
It’s been puzzling me for some time.
But I can’t situate my recollection in any place or at any time.”
The skipper massively shrugged his heavy shoulders.
“It’s thirty years since I first come to the islands.
A man can’t figure on remembering all the folk he meets in a while like that.”
The Swede shook his head.
“You know how one sometimes has the feeling that a place one has never been to before is strangely familiar.
That’s how I seem to see you.”
He gave a whimsical smile.
“Perhaps I knew you in some past existence.
Perhaps, perhaps you were the master of a galley in ancient Rome and I was a slave at the oar.
Thirty years have you been here?”
“Every bit of thirty years.”
“I wonder if you knew a man called Red?”
“That is the only name I’ve ever known him by.
I never knew him personally.
I never even set eyes on him.
And yet I seem to see him more clearly than many men, my brothers, for instance, with whom I passed my daily life for many years.
He lives in my imagination with the distinctness of a Paolo Malatesta or a Romeo.
But I daresay you have never read Dante or Shakespeare?”
“I can’t say as I have,” said the captain.
Neilson, smoking a cigar, leaned back in his chair and looked vacantly at the ring of smoke which floated in the still air.
A smile played on his lips, but his eyes were grave.
Then he looked at the captain.
There was in his gross obesity something extraordinarily repellent.
He had the plethoric self-satisfaction of the very fat.
It was an outrage.
It set Neilson’s nerves on edge.
But the contrast between the man before him and the man he had in mind was pleasant.
“It appears that Red was the most comely thing you ever saw.
I’ve talked to quite a number of people who knew him in those days, white men, and they all agree that the first time you saw him his beauty just took your breath away.
They called him Red on account of his flaming hair.
It had a natural wave and he wore it long.
It must have been of that wonderful colour that the pre-Raphaelites raved over.
I don’t think he was vain of it, he was much too ingenuous for that, but no one could have blamed him if he had been.
He was tall, six feet and an inch or two–in the native house that used to stand here was the mark of his height cut with a knife on the central trunk that supported the roof–and he was made like a Greek god, broad in the shoulders and thin in the flanks; he was like Apollo, with just that soft roundness which Praxiteles gave him, and that suave, feminine grace which has in it something troubling and mysterious.
His skin was dazzling white, milky, like satin; his skin was like a woman’s.”
“I had kind of a white skin myself when I was a kiddie,” said the skipper, with a twinkle in his bloodshot eyes.
But Neilson paid no attention to him.
He was telling his story now and interruption made him impatient.
“And his face was just as beautiful as his body.
He had large blue eyes, very dark, so that some say they were black, and unlike most red-haired people he had dark eyebrows and long dark lashes.
His features were perfectly regular and his mouth was like a scarlet wound.
He was twenty.”
On these words the Swede stopped with a certain sense of the dramatic.
He took a sip of whisky.
“He was unique.
There never was anyone more beautiful.
There was no more reason for him than for a wonderful blossom to flower on a wild plant.
He was a happy accident of nature.”
“One day he landed at that cove into which you must have put this morning.
He was an American sailor, and he had deserted from a man-of-war in Apia.
He had induced some good-humoured native to give him a passage on a cutter that happened to be sailing from Apia to Safoto, and he had been put ashore here in a dugout.
I do not know why he deserted. Perhaps life on a man-of-war with its restrictions irked him, perhaps he was in trouble, and perhaps it was the South Seas and these romantic islands that got into his bones.
Every now and then they take a man strangely, and he finds himself like a fly in a spider’s web.
It may be that there was a softness of fibre in him, and these green hills with their soft airs, this blue sea, took the northern strength from him as Delilah took the Nazarite’s.
Anyhow, he wanted to hide himself, and he thought he would be safe in this secluded nook till his ship had sailed from Samoa.”
“There was a native hut at the cove and as he stood there, wondering where exactly he should turn his steps, a young girl came out and invited him to enter.
He knew scarcely two words of the native tongue and she as little English.
But he understood well enough what her smiles meant, and her pretty gestures, and he followed her.
He sat down on a mat and she gave him slices of pineapple to eat.
I can speak of Red only from hearsay, but I saw the girl three years after he first met her, and she was scarcely nineteen then.
You cannot imagine how exquisite she was.
She had the passionate grace of the hibiscus and the rich colour.
She was rather tall, slim, with the delicate features of her race, and large eyes like pools of still water under the palm trees; her hair, black and curling, fell down her back, and she wore a wreath of scented flowers.
Her hands were lovely.
They were so small, so exquisitely formed, they gave your heart-strings a wrench.
And in those days she laughed easily.
Her smile was so delightful that it made your knees shake.
Her skin was like a field of ripe corn on a summer day.
Good Heavens, how can I describe her? She was too beautiful to be real.”
“And these two young things, she was sixteen and he was twenty, fell in love with one another at first sight. That is the real love, not the love that comes from sympathy, common interests, or intellectual community, but love pure and simple.
That is the love that Adam felt for Eve when he awoke and found her in the garden gazing at him with dewy eyes.
That is the love that draws the beasts to one another, and the Gods.
That is the love that makes the world a miracle.
That is the love which gives life its pregnant meaning.
You have never heard of the wise, cynical French duke who said that with two lovers there is always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved; it is a bitter truth to which most of us have to resign ourselves; but now and then there are two who love and two who let themselves be loved.
Then one might fancy that the sun stands still as it stood when Joshua prayed to the God of Israel.”
“And even now after all these years, when I think of these two, so young, so fair, so simple, and of their love, I feel a pang. It tears my heart just as my heart is torn when on certain nights I watch the full moon shining on the lagoon from an unclouded sky.
There is always pain in the contemplation of perfect beauty.”
“They were children.
She was good and sweet and kind.
I know nothing of him, and I like to think that then at all events he was ingenuous and frank.
I like to think that his soul was as comely as his body.
But I daresay he had no more soul than the creatures of the woods and forests who made pipes from reeds and bathed in the mountain streams when the world was young, and you might catch sight of little fawns galloping through the glade on the back of a bearded centaur.
A soul is a troublesome possession and when man developed it he lost the Garden of Eden.”
“Well, when Red came to the island it had recently been visited by one of those epidemics which the white man has brought to the South Seas, and one third of the inhabitants had died.
It seems that the girl had lost all her near kin and she lived now in the house of distant cousins.
The household consisted of two ancient crones, bowed and wrinkled, two younger women, and a man and a boy.
For a few days he stayed there.
But perhaps he felt himself too near the shore, with the possibility that he might fall in with white men who would reveal his hiding-place; perhaps the lovers could not bear that the company of others should rob them for an instant of the delight of being together.
One morning they set out, the pair of them, with the few things that belonged to the girl, and walked along a grassy path under the coconuts, till they came to the creek you see.
They had to cross the bridge you crossed, and the girl laughed gleefully because he was afraid.
She held his hand till they came to the end of the first tree, and then his courage failed him and he had to go back.
He was obliged to take off all his clothes before he could risk it, and she carried them over for him on her head.
They settled down in the empty hut that stood here.
Whether she had any rights over it (land tenure is a complicated business in the islands), or whether the owner had died during the epidemic, I do not know, but anyhow no one questioned them, and they took possession.
Their furniture consisted of a couple of grass-mats on which they slept, a fragment of looking-glass, and a bowl or two.
In this pleasant land that is enough to start housekeeping on.”
“They say that happy people have no history, and certainly a happy love has none.
They did nothing all day long and yet the days seemed all too short.
The girl had a native name, but Red called her Sally.
He picked up the easy language very quickly, and he used to lie on the mat for hours while she chattered gaily to him.
He was a silent fellow, and perhaps his mind was lethargic.
He smoked incessantly the cigarettes which she made him out of the native tobacco and pandanus leaf, and he watched her while with deft fingers she made grass mats.
Often natives would come in and tell long stories of the old days when the island was disturbed by tribal wars.
Sometimes he would go fishing on the reef, and bring home a basket full of coloured fish.
Sometimes at night he would go out with a lantern to catch lobster.
There were plantains round the hut and Sally would roast them for their frugal meal.
She knew how to make delicious messes from coconuts, and the bread-fruit tree by the side of the creek gave them its fruit.
On feast-days they killed a little pig and cooked it on hot stones.
They bathed together in the creek; and in the evening they went down to the lagoon and paddled about in a dugout, with its great outrigger.
The sea was deep blue, wine-coloured at sundown, like the sea of Homeric Greece; but in the lagoon the colour had an infinite variety, aquamarine and amethyst and emerald; and the setting sun turned it for a short moment to liquid gold.
Then there was the colour of the coral, brown, white, pink, red, purple; and the shapes it took were marvellous. It was like a magic garden, and the hurrying fish were like butterflies.
It strangely lacked reality.
Among the coral were pools with a floor of white sand and here, where the water was dazzling clear, it was very good to bathe.
Then, cool and happy, they wandered back in the gloaming over the soft grass road to the creek, walking hand in hand, and now the mynah birds filled the coconut trees with their clamour.
And then the night, with that great, sky shining with gold, that seemed to stretch more widely than the skies of Europe, and the soft airs that blew gently through the open hut, the long night again was all too short.
She was sixteen and he was barely twenty.
The dawn crept in among the wooden pillars of the hut and looked at those lovely children sleeping in one another’s arms.
The sun hid behind the great tattered leaves of the plantains so that it might not disturb them, and then, with playful malice, shot a golden ray, like the outstretched paw of a Persian cat, on their faces.
They opened their sleepy eyes and they smiled to welcome another day.
The weeks lengthened into months, and a year passed.
They seemed to love one another as–I hesitate to say passionately, for passion has in it always a shade of sadness, a touch of bitterness or anguish, but as whole heartedly, as simply and naturally as on that first day on which, meeting, they had recognised that a god was in them.”
“If you had asked them I have no doubt that they would have thought it impossible to suppose their love could ever cease.
Do we not know that the essential element of love is a belief in its own eternity?
And yet perhaps in Red there was already a very little seed, unknown to himself and unsuspected by the girl, which would in time have grown to weariness.
For one day one of the natives from the cove told them that some way down the coast at the anchorage was a British whaling-ship.”
“‘Gee,’ he said, ‘I wonder if I could make a trade of some nuts and plantains for a pound or two of tobacco.'”
“The pandanus cigarettes that Sally made him with untiring hands were strong and pleasant enough to smoke, but they left him unsatisfied; and he yearned on a sudden for real tobacco, hard, rank, and pungent. He had not smoked a pipe for many, months.
His mouth watered at the thought of it.
One would have thought some premonition of harm would have made Sally seek to dissuade him, but love possessed her so completely that it never occurred to her any power on earth could take him from her.
They went up into the hills together and gathered a great basket of wild oranges, green, but sweet and juicy; and they picked plantains from around the hut, and coconuts from their trees, and breadfruit and mangoes; and they carried them down to the cove.
They loaded the unstable canoe with them, and Red and the native boy who had brought them the news of the ship paddled along outside the reef.”
“It was the last time she ever saw him.”
“Next day the boy came back alone. He was all in tears.
This is the story he told.
When after their long paddle they reached the ship and Red hailed it, a white man looked over the side and told them to come on board.
They took the fruit they had brought with them and Red piled it up on the deck.
The white man and he began to talk, and they seemed to come to some agreement.
One of them went below and brought up tobacco.
Red took some at once and lit a pipe.
The boy imitated the zest with which he blew a great cloud of smoke from his mouth.
Then they said something to him and he went into the cabin.
Through the open door the boy, watching curiously, saw a bottle brought out and glasses.
Red drank and smoked.
They seemed to ask him something, for he shook his head and laughed.
The man, the first man who had spoken to them, laughed too, and he filled Red’s glass once more.
They went on talking and drinking, and presently, growing tired of watching a sight that meant nothing to him, the boy curled himself up on the deck and slept.
He was awakened by a kick; and, jumping to his feet, he saw that the ship was slowly sailing out of the lagoon.
He caught sight of Red seated at the table, with his head resting heavily on his arms, fast asleep.
He made a movement towards him, intending to wake him, but a rough hand seized his arm, and a man, with a scowl and words which he did not understand, pointed to the side.
He shouted to Red, but in a moment he was seized and flung overboard.
Helpless, he swam round to his canoe which was drifting a little way off, and pushed it on to the reef.
He climbed in and, sobbing all the way, paddled back to shore.”
“What had happened was obvious enough.
The whaler, by desertion or sickness, was short of hands, and the captain when Red came aboard had asked him to sign on; on his refusal he had made him drunk and kidnapped him.”
“Sally was beside herself with grief. For three days she screamed and cried.
The natives did what they could to comfort her, but she would not be comforted.
She would not eat.
And then, exhausted, she sank into a sullen apathy.
She spent long days at the cove, watching the lagoon, in the vain hope that Red somehow or other would manage to escape.
She sat on the white sand, hour after hour, with the tears running down her cheeks, and at night dragged herself wearily back across the creek to the little hut where she had been happy.
The people with whom she had lived before Red came to the island wished her to return to them, but she would not; she was convinced that Red would come back, and she wanted him to find her where he had left her.
Four months later she was delivered of a still-born child, and the old woman who had come to help her through her confinement remained with her in the hut.
All joy was taken from her life. If her anguish with time became less intolerable it was replaced by a settled melancholy.
You would not have thought that among these people, whose emotions, though so violent, are very transient, a woman could be found capable of so enduring a passion.
She never lost the profound conviction that sooner or later Red would come back.
She watched for him, and every time someone crossed this slender little bridge of coconut trees she looked. It might at last be he.”
Neilson stopped talking and gave a faint sigh.
“And what happened to her in the end?” asked the skipper.
Neilson smiled bitterly.
“Oh, three years afterwards she took up with another white man.”
The skipper gave a fat, cynical chuckle.
“That’s generally what happens to them,” he said.
The Swede shot him a look of hatred.
He did not know why that gross, obese man excited in him so violent a repulsion.
But his thoughts wandered and he found his mind filled with memories of the past.
He went back five and twenty years.
It was when he first came to the island, weary of Apia, with its heavy drinking, its gambling and coarse sensuality, a sick man, trying to resign himself to the loss of the career which had fired his imagination with ambitious thoughts.
He set behind him resolutely all his hopes of making a great name for himself and strove to content himself with the few poor months of careful life which was all that he could count on.
He was boarding with a half-caste trader who had a store a couple of miles along the coast at the edge of a native village; and one day, wandering aimlessly along the grassy paths of the coconut groves, he had come upon the hut in which Sally lived.
The beauty of the spot had filled him with a rapture so great that it was almost painful, and then he had seen Sally.
She was the loveliest creature he had ever seen, and the sadness in those dark, magnificent eyes of hers affected him strangely.
The Kanakas were a handsome race, and beauty was not rare among them, but it was the beauty of shapely animals.
It was empty.
But those tragic eyes were dark with mystery, and you felt in them the bitter complexity of the groping, human soul.
The trader told him the story and it moved him.
“Do you think he’ll ever come back?” asked Neilson.
Why, it’ll be a couple of years before the ship is paid off, and by then he’ll have forgotten all about her.
I bet he was pretty mad when he woke up and found he’d been shanghaied, and I shouldn’t wonder but he wanted to fight somebody.
But he’d got to grin and bear it, and I guess in a month he was thinking it the best thing that had ever happened to him that he got away from the island.”
But Neilson could not get the story out of his head.
Perhaps because he was sick and weakly, the radiant health of Red appealed to his imagination.
Himself an ugly man, insignificant of appearance, he prized very highly comeliness in others.
He had never been passionately in love, and certainly he had never been passionately loved.
The mutual attraction of those two young things gave him a singular delight.
It had the ineffable beauty of the Absolute.
He went again to the little hut by the creek.
He had a gift for languages and an energetic mind, accustomed to work, and he had already given much time to the study of the local tongue.
Old habit was strong in him and he was gathering together material for a paper on the Samoan speech.
The old crone who shared the hut with Sally invited him to come in and sit down.
She gave him kava to drink and cigarettes to smoke.
She was glad to have someone to chat with and while she talked he looked at Sally.
She reminded him of the Psyche in the museum at Naples.
Her features had the same dear purity of line, and though she had borne a child she had still a virginal aspect.
It was not till he had seen her two or three times that he induced her to speak.
Then it was only to ask him if he had seen in Apia a man called Red.
Two years had passed since his disappearance, but it was plain that she still thought of him incessantly.
It did not take Neilson long to discover that he was in love with her.
It was only by an effort of will now that he prevented himself from going every day to the creek, and when he was not with Sally his thoughts were.
At first, looking upon himself as a dying man, he asked only to look at her, and occasionally hear her speak, and his love gave him a wonderful happiness.
He exulted in its purity.
He wanted nothing from her but the opportunity to weave around her graceful person a web of beautiful fancies.
But the open air, the equable temperature, the rest, the simple fare, began to have an unexpected effect on his health.
His temperature did not soar at night to such alarming heights, he coughed less and began to put on weight; six months passed without his having a hæmorrhage; and on a sudden he saw the possibility that he might live.
He had studied his disease carefully, and the hope dawned upon him that with great care he might arrest its course.
It exhilarated him to look forward once more to the future.
He made plans. It was evident that any active life was out of the question, but he could live on the islands, and the small income he had, insufficient elsewhere, would be ample to keep him.
He could grow coconuts; that would give him an occupation; and he would send for his books and a piano; but his quick mind saw that in all this he was merely trying to conceal from himself the desire which obsessed him.
He wanted Sally.
He loved not only her beauty, but that dim soul which he divined behind her suffering eyes.
He would intoxicate her with his passion.
In the end he would make her forget.
And in an ecstasy of surrender he fancied himself giving her too the happiness which he had thought never to know again, but had now so miraculously achieved.
He asked her to live with him.
He had expected that and did not let it depress him, for he was sure that sooner or later she would yield.
His love was irresistible.
He told the old woman of his wishes, and found somewhat to his surprise that she and the neighbours, long aware of them, were strongly urging Sally to accept his offer.
After all, every native was glad to keep house for a white man, and Neilson according to the standards of the island was a rich one.
The trader with whom he boarded went to her and told her not to be a fool; such an opportunity would not come again, and after so long she could not still believe that Red would ever return.
The girl’s resistance only increased Neilson’s desire, and what had been a very pure love now became an agonising passion.
He was determined that nothing should stand in his way.
He gave Sally no peace.
At last, worn out by his persistence and the persuasions, by turns pleading and angry, of everyone around her, she consented.
But the day after when, exultant, he went to see her he found that in the night she had burnt down the hut in which she and Red had lived together.
The old crone ran towards him full of angry abuse of Sally, but he waved her aside; it did not matter; they would build a bungalow on the place where the hut had stood.
A European house would really be more convenient if he wanted to bring out a piano and a vast number of books.
And so the little wooden house was built in which he had now lived for many years, and Sally became his wife.
But after the first few weeks of rapture, during which he was satisfied with what she gave him he had known little happiness.
She had yielded to him, through weariness, but she had only yielded what she set no store on.
The soul which he had dimly glimpsed escaped him.
He knew that she cared nothing for him.
She still loved Red, and all the time she was waiting for his return.
At a sign from him, Neilson knew that, notwithstanding his love, his tenderness, his sympathy, his generosity, she would leave him without a moment’s hesitation.
She would never give a thought to his distress.
Anguish seized him and he battered at that impenetrable self of hers which sullenly resisted him.
His love became bitter.
He tried to melt her heart with kindness, but it remained as hard as before; he feigned indifference, but she did not notice it.
Sometimes he lost his temper and abused her, and then she wept silently.
Sometimes he thought she was nothing but a fraud, and that soul simply an invention of his own, and that he could not get into the sanctuary of her heart because there was no sanctuary there.
His love became a prison from which he longed to escape, but he had not the strength merely to open the door–that was all it needed–and walk out into the open air.
It was torture and at last he became numb and hopeless.
In the end the fire burnt itself out and, when he saw her eyes rest for an instant on the slender bridge, it was no longer rage that filled his heart but impatience.
For many years now they had lived together bound by the ties of habit and convenience, and it was with a smile that he looked back on his old passion.
She was an old woman, for the women on the islands age quickly, and if he had no love for her any more he had tolerance.
She left him alone.
He was contented with his piano and his books.
His thoughts led him to a desire for words.
“When I look back now and reflect on that brief passionate love of Red and Sally, I think that perhaps they should thank the ruthless fate that separated them when their love seemed still to be at its height.
They suffered, but they suffered in beauty.
They were spared the real tragedy of love.”
“I don’t know exactly as I get you,” said the skipper.
“The tragedy of love is not death or separation.
How long do you think it would have been before one or other of them ceased to care?
Oh, it is dreadfully bitter to look at a woman whom you have loved with all your heart and soul, so that you felt you could not bear to let her out of your sight, and realise that you would not mind if you never saw her again.
The tragedy of love is indifference.”
But while he was speaking a very extraordinary thing happened.
Though he had been addressing the skipper he had not been talking to him, he had been putting his thoughts into words for himself, and with his eyes fixed on the man in front of him he had not seen him.
But now an image presented itself to them, an image not of the man he saw, but of another man.
It was as though he were looking into one of those distorting mirrors that make you extraordinarily squat or outrageously elongate, but here exactly the opposite took place, and in the obese, ugly old man he caught the shadowy glimpse of a stripling.
He gave him now a quick, searching scrutiny.
Why had a haphazard stroll brought him just to this place?
A sudden tremor of his heart made him slightly breathless.
An absurd suspicion seized him.
What had occurred to him was impossible, and yet it might be a fact.
“What is your name?” he asked abruptly.
The skipper’s face puckered and he gave a cunning chuckle.
He looked then malicious and horribly vulgar.
“It’s such a damned long time since I heard it that I almost forget it myself.
But for thirty years now in the islands they’ve always called me Red.”
His huge form shook as he gave a low, almost silent laugh.
It was obscene.
Red was hugely amused, and from his bloodshot eyes tears ran down his cheeks.
Neilson gave a gasp, for at that moment a woman came in.
She was a native, a woman of somewhat commanding presence, stout without being corpulent, dark, for the natives grow darker with age, with very grey hair.
She wore a black Mother Hubbard, and its thinness showed her heavy breasts.
The moment had come.
She made an observation to Neilson about some household matter and he answered.
He wondered if his voice sounded as unnatural to her as it did to himself.
She gave the man who was sitting in the chair by the window an indifferent glance, and went out of the room.
The moment had come and gone.
Neilson for a moment could not speak. He was strangely shaken.
Then he said:
“I’d be very glad if you’d stay and have a bit of dinner with me. Pot luck.”
“I don’t think I will,” said Red.
“I must go after this fellow Gray.
I’ll give him his stuff and then I’ll get away.
I want to be back in Apia to-morrow.”
“I’ll send a boy along with you to show you the way.”
“That’ll be fine.”
Red heaved himself out of his chair, while the Swede called one of the boys who worked on the plantation. He told him where the skipper wanted to go, and the boy stepped along the bridge.
Red prepared to follow him.
“Don’t fall in,” said Neilson.
“Not on your life.”
Neilson watched him make his way across and when he had disappeared among the coconuts he looked still.
Then he sank heavily in his chair.
Was that the man who had prevented him from being happy?
Was that the man whom Sally had loved all these years and for whom she had waited so desperately?
It was grotesque.
A sudden fury seized him so that he had an instinct to spring up and smash everything around him.
He had been cheated.
They had seen each other at last and had not known it.
He began to laugh, mirthlessly, and his laughter grew till it became hysterical.
The Gods had played him a cruel trick. And he was old now.
At last Sally came in to tell him dinner was ready.
He sat down in front of her and tried to eat.
He wondered what she would say if he told her now that the fat old man sitting in the chair was the lover whom she remembered still with the passionate abandonment of her youth.
Years ago, when he hated her because she made him so unhappy, he would have been glad to tell her.
He wanted to hurt her then as she hurt him, because his hatred was only love.
But now he did not care.
He shrugged his shoulders listlessly.
“What did that man want?” she asked presently.
He did not answer at once.
She was old too, a fat old native woman.
He wondered why he had ever loved her so madly.
He had laid at her feet all the treasures of his soul, and she had cared nothing for them.
Waste, what waste!
And now, when he looked at her, he felt only contempt.
His patience was at last exhausted.
He answered her question.
“He’s the captain of a schooner.
He’s come from Apia.”
“He brought me news from home.
My eldest brother is very ill and I must go back.”
“Will you be gone long?”
He shrugged his shoulders.