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XVI. - Something in it.
“There is nothing in it,” said the missionary.
There was a bay upon that island, a very fair bay to look upon; but, by the native saying, it was death to bathe there. “There is nothing in that,” said the missionary; and he came to the bay, and went swimming. Presently an eddy took him and bore him towards the reef. “Oho!” thought the missionary, “it seems there is something in it after all.” And he swam the harder, but the eddy carried him away. “I do not care about this eddy,” said the missionary; and even as he said it, he was aware of a house raised on piles above the sea; it was built of yellow reeds, one reed joined with another, and the whole bound with black sinnet; a ladder led to the door, and all about the house hung calabashes. He had never seen such a house, nor yet such calabashes; and the eddy set for the ladder. “This is singular,” said the missionary, “but there can be nothing in it.” And he laid hold of the ladder and went up. It was a fine house; but there was no man there; and when the missionary looked back he saw no island, only the heaving of the sea. “It is strange about the island,” said the missionary, “but who’s afraid? my stories are the true ones.” And he laid hold of a calabash, for he was one that loved curiosities. Now he had no sooner laid hand upon the calabash than that which he handled, and that which he saw and stood on, burst like a bubble and was gone; and night closed upon him, and the waters, and the meshes of the net; and he wallowed there like a fish.
“A body would think there was something in this,” said the missionary. “But if these tales are true, I wonder what about my tales!”
Now the flaming of Akaanga’s torch drew near in the night; and the misshapen hands groped in the meshes of the net; and they took the missionary between the finger and the thumb, and bore him dripping in the night and silence to the place of the ovens of Miru. And there was Miru, ruddy in the glow of the ovens; and there sat her four daughters, and made the kava of the dead; and there sat the comers out of the islands of the living, dripping and lamenting.
This was a dread place to reach for any of the sons of men. But of all who ever came there, the missionary was the most concerned; and, to make things worse, the person next him was a convert of his own.
“Aha,” said the convert, “so you are here like your neighbours? And how about all your stories?”
“It seems,” said the missionary, with bursting tears, “that there was nothing in them.”
By this the kava of the dead was ready, and the daughters of Miru began to intone in the old manner of singing. “Gone are the green islands and the bright sea, the sun and the moon and the forty million stars, and life and love and hope. Henceforth is no more, only to sit in the night and silence, and see your friends devoured; for life is a deceit, and the bandage is taken from your eyes.”
Now when the singing was done, one of the daughters came with the bowl. Desire of that kava rose in the missionary’s bosom; he lusted for it like a swimmer for the land, or a bridegroom for his bride; and he reached out his hand, and took the bowl, and would have drunk. And then he remembered, and put it back.
“Drink!” sang the daughter of Miru.
“There is no kava like the kava of the dead, and to drink of it once is the reward of living.”
“I thank you. It smells excellent,” said the missionary. “But I am a blue-ribbon man myself; and though I am aware there is a difference of opinion even in our own confession, I have always held kava to be excluded.”
“What!” cried the convert. “Are you going to respect a taboo at a time like this? And you were always so opposed to taboos when you were alive!”
“To other people’s,” said the missionary. “Never to my own.”
“But yours have all proved wrong,” said the convert.
“It looks like it,” said the missionary, “and I can’t help that. No reason why I should break my word.”
“I never heard the like of this!” cried the daughter of Miru. “Pray, what do you expect to gain?”
“That is not the point,” said the missionary. “I took this pledge for others, I am not going to break it for myself.”
The daughter of Miru was puzzled; she came and told her mother, and Miru was vexed; and they went and told Akaanga. “I don’t know what to do about this,” said Akaanga; and he came and reasoned with the missionary.
“But there is such a thing as right and wrong,” said the missionary; “and your ovens cannot alter that.”
“Give the kava to the rest,” said Akaanga to the daughters of Miru. “I must get rid of this sea-lawyer instantly, or worse will come of it.”
The next moment the missionary came up in the midst of the sea, and there before him were the palm trees of the island. He swam to the shore gladly, and landed. Much matter of thought was in that missionary’s mind.
“I seem to have been misinformed upon some points,” said he. “Perhaps there is not much in it, as I supposed; but there is something in it after all. Let me be glad of that.”
And he rang the bell for service.
The sticks break, the stones crumble,
The eternal altars tilt and tumble,
Sanctions and tales dislimn like mist
About the amazed evangelist.
He stands unshook from age to youth
Upon one pin-point of the truth.