From Out of Soundings,
Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London:
Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 3, p29-43.
From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 3, p36-43.
H. M. Tomlinson
THAT island had always attracted me, in the way a fabulous sea-desert does a reader who envies Robinson Crusoe. Yet my island is more secluded than Crusoe's. Though it is a geographical fact, that is all it is. A book about it does not exist, to my knowledge--there may be one in Dutch--and my chance of ever seeing it as a landfall was as remote as are the Hesperides from us all. Now and again I chanced on its name in a traveller's tale, though the reference was never more substantial than a bare allusion; my island acquired merely the deepened attraction of what is withheld. There is, as you know, a plentiful bibliography, scientific, of the imagination, and even of the department of humour, built on its next big neighbour to the eastward, Papua; but I have met with only one authority on the subject of Halmaheira, or Gilolo, and that young man, of Holland, who had been exiled upon the island, and when I met him had but just escaped from it, was too reduced by fever, and so unused to the society of his fellows, that he never said anything about Gilolo except "it is not good."
If you would look at it on the right chart!--but no, you had better not. You will be lost, if you get hold of the kind of chart a sailor must use when approaching it. That island is an ample place; the equator divides it, and the blank spaces of its chart and the warnings to mariners show that you might die there if your experience and intelligence proved to be inadequate. The names scattered about its coast would draw anyone half round the world, which is the exact distance of the island from skyscrapers and the fun of the fair. Its coast line is so devious and convoluted that to sail round it would be a long adventure, with never a warning of what to expect up that river, or round that cape. We had better leave its chart alone.
A day came, and sunrise was the time, when at last there dead ahead of me was the very island itself. I was half-way round the world. The island was as unreal as ever; it was only a lower shape among the vapours of dawn. Before we neared it my ship landed me at another and a much smaller island of the Moluccas, where Drake was entertained by the Sultan. There I had to stay, though that was no hardship. Across the water, from the beach of Ternate, every day I saw the fantastic cloud of Gilolo still persisted on the sea; it merely changed its colours with the hours. But as for crossing over to it, who would put out to land on a vision?
A Dutch medical officer, while taking his gin and bitters, said to me, in extreme displeasure, that he was soon to visit Gilolo. It was most lonely. He was not a sailor, he was a soldier. The garrison over the water, it was necessary to visit, very bad fever and yaws, also dysenteries. He would be pleased if I go. That was why I went down to the jetty of Ternate, early one morning, and found indeed the official motor-launch, with two Malays squatting on its bottom boards. The voyage to my island began to appear so easy a probability that my scepticism hardened. For one thing, the doctor had not arrived. It was hardly time for him yet, maybe; it was still much too early for an official. As for me, already the power of the sun made me feel that even Gilolo could wait a little longer; or even for ever, now the inducement was immediate. When we may, we do not. If the doctor did not come, then I could stay where I was, and not repine. One of the Malays invited me to take a seat in the launch, but its space was cramped, and it was too glaringly white and hot. The big island over the water was a violet chimera with a notched back. Mr. O'Keefe was near me on the jetty, talking freely to the crew of a prahu; I saluted, and made to approach that Irishman, but he only scowled, and turned away.
I had to wait alone. It was the Dutch padre who had introduced me to Mr. O'Keefe the night before, and because I had shown some doubt about him; for this missionary had informed me that he had christened, and only last Sunday, three black children of an English woman who lived on Gilolo. He was trying to persuade me that my unexplored island was already infected by civility. I assured him that these exiled and outlawed countrymen of mine, whenever I had met them, were no more like English than Kalmucks. If they spoke English, it was only a Suez variety of the language of sailors. "All right. You come with me and see Mr. O'Keefe. He is English."
It was useless to warn a Dutchman that O'Keefe, should he prove true to form, might try to kill any man who called him English. So we went to see this Irishman, who owns an island in these seas, and cultivates coconuts. Mrs. O'Keefe, too, was there. It was night, there was an oil-lamp that was no better than a symbol in a dark temple, and in that gloom the Irishman's wife might have been a dubious pagan deity posed in seclusion. With her feet tucked under her on the floor she sat with her hands stretched out on her knees, looked down her ebon nose, and did not move, and made no sound. I thought she would never respond except to cabalistic words I did not know. I did not dare look at her after my first startled glance. O'Keefe himself was a man who would have raised no comment as an under-steward in a Portuguese ship. He did not speak English, and could not make out why we were there.
I ignored him that morning on the jetty, after my first greeting, and stared overside. A rose-coloured lory, perched near me on the rail, made a friendly noise and sidled towards me. This parrot was less foreign than O'Keefe. I tried lazily to detect the surface of the water beneath. If you looked straight at the glass it had no surface. Your gaze, as though too heavy for this equatorial sort of water, fell to the bottom, to coral shrubs the colour of the parrot, to hummocks that were olive-green, to a garden five fathoms down. I could see suspensory groups of stalkless blossoms, or else they were fishes, beneath me. Those coloured particles were free, and they drifted about invariably true to their own colour and kind. They were never confused. The numerous vivid atoms of each group, in the denser air below, sparkled ruby or gold, and the company of each sort moved as one body, invisibly attached. One swarm of them, glittering like a constellation before the dark opening of a cave, suddenly dispersed in minute flashes of blue lightning. Another cluster were of saffron with black stripes, and they were swaying in a draught I could not feel up above; they slowly dissolved, and then reappeared to sway elsewhere. I was only looking on; in the heat of the day the sight was the only sense which kept awake. An array of shining torpedoes swept into the transparency, and the little flowers vanished. The glass below me trembled, the bottom of the sea wavered, became reticular, and faded. Now I could see its surface.
"We go now." I looked up, and the young doctor was behind me, smiling, his raiment white from boots to helmet, and with him was a Malay carrying a leather case. We embarked. Soon we were in the rip of the tide. The native at the wheel touched the gear as a skilled instrumentalist, and the way he chewed betel should have given the doctor full confidence, but the doctor confided to me, "I do not like this." A younger Malay squatted in the bows, on the look-out, with about as much movement as a bronze figurehead. The engine crooned a song to itself, which varied in its loudness as she rolled, lifted, and plunged. I looked astern, and the jetty had shrunk into the high bulk of Ternate. The fleet of canoes of the fishermen had partly melted and were indeterminate in a glare. We opened out the shore, which was marked by a diminishing array of miles of pale coconut palms. Those palms were the sea-verge of the precipitous green forest of the isolated volcano which was our home. Now we could watch, not without suspicion, our island's head, far, rufous, and indolently puffing its smoke.
The launch rolled and toiled along, but Gilolo came no nearer. I thought it had receded. Its accessibility, with a ship as small as ours, was not apparent. The sea, too, was by no means as placid as it had looked from the jetty. It behaved in a way that was curious to me; but then its bottom was unequal with reefs, and no doubt tides and currents could be at a serious difference in that channel. The waters swirled and upheaved unreasonably.
The mountains of Gilolo appeared to have heightened; but then, I had to remember, we were down among the waves. That array of gigantic shapes, high and acute, could have been on one plane, and without body, all equally distant, for they were without shadows. Gilolo was but an illusion of land, the theatrical backcloth for a drama without human attributes. Our little boat swayed and cheerfully sang in the sun, and that was the only sound, and for I do not know how long.
I noticed, presently, that those distant heights were acquiring bulk. Shadows fell between the ranges. The straight line of coast developed bays, and began to emerge as promontories. One gulf retired gradually, as we progressed, to a surprising penetration of the island. Gilolo grew more vivid, and its colour was green, though without the least variation. It was a toneless green, from the shore to the sharp peaks, for it was all forest, all unexplored forest. What work, to learn what was among those mountains! Not even a canoe was on this side of the strait. It was strange that our little craft should make so cheerful and innocently impudent a noise when approaching that immense silence.
No beach was to be seen. The forest rose from the water, as steep as cliffs of emerald. I failed to see how even yaws could be found there. We stood in, and two arms of the island unfolded to meet us, and between them we went, and on the port side turned to a landing place and a few huts. Nobody met us. We landed, and went along a track towards a huddle of huts abandoned to silence under a scatter of lofty palms; when we reached them, a few nocturnal and melancholy women, who separated from the shadows when they moved, glanced briefly and sadly at us. Perhaps they knew that our brisk interruption from the world of men could not break the spell of their place. The doctor entered a larger hut, and left me to please myself. I could do nothing to help him, his business being what it was.
In Gilolo the sounds of life had not begun. It was broad day, and therefore I knew the island was not sunk in the sleep of midnight. A dog or a child would have increased a wayfarer's confidence. My feet shuffling through leaf parchments made a startling uproar as I went down to the mangroves; the harsh noise made me turn to the huts, to see whether my indiscretion was signalled. Nobody was looking. Nothing living was in sight. My friend the doctor was swallowed by the quiet. When out of sight of the settlement eruptions of grasshoppers went before me in the herbage, and made a continuous whispering, parched and secretive. Not even a butterfly was there, and usually one does see at least that in a tropical wilderness, to give a touch of original joy to an outlandish place. Once, though, I heard a sweet and plaintive trilling in a shrub, like that of a warbler, and it was then as if the primeval nature of Gilolo stirred with the origin of a known life. I did not hear it again. But it fortified me when I was down by the black mud of the mangroves, where the prospect belonged to an earlier geological age, and thousands of hermit crabs strolled about the slime with their shells over them, as bonnets. I did not see the labyrinthodont, the monster that once frequented such a scene when coal was a flourishing forest of the prime, long before it was near to being merely one of man s economic problems. Yet though the appearance of that autochthonous reptile, upheaving from the morass, would have been proper to Gilolo's mangrove swamp, I was prepared for him, for I had heard a warbler beforehand, and so was sure I was in my own day, and not his. For the same reason, too, the crabs were amusing; the shells they carried awkwardly about made comic wobbling movements when they hurried, like the insecure bonnets of old ladies all desperately eager to catch a bus. When I looked up, the forest across the creek regarded me with the large composure of a guardian of the unrevealed, confident that I should attempt there nothing that was foolish. It knew that its aspect was sufficiently repressive. (But ah! if one had only more time! To have gone over, and entered that forest, and continued to its Pacific shore!)
The doctor appeared again. The chanting of the boat's motor on the way home brought a smile of relief to my companion's face, but it did not alter the countenance of Gilolo, which stood over us darkly, to watch us depart. We got out of its arms, and were at sea again. Now, it was our intention to have a meal in the boat, on the home run, but our little ship's behaviour was discouraging. A serious dispute developed between the seas and the submerged reefs, and our launch was involved in it. The seas were angry, for they were in a hurry, but were checked. The doctor turned hopefully to look at our own island, to see how near it was. But Ternate was not near. It was no sort of home, at that distance. It was only a cone, resting on the horizon. The boat jumped, then wallowed in a trough, and a gallon of water fell at the surgeon's feet. We had no deck.
We worked more into the open, and there the turmoil of malignant seas forming pyramids and toppling ridges obscured the shore for which we were making. Our motor-boat became smaller, I thought. Its movements now were unpredictable, and I must confess to an effort to confirm my faith in an engine which, I was glad to see, was made at Southampton, for if that broke down through stress, unless something worse happened we should have to drift under the sun next day for nobody could say how long, and without water. Even a brave man might not choose to be adrift at sea under a blazing sun in that unfrequented low latitude.
A comber exploded, and the engine raced. The poor doctor's face went grey. He was drenched. His English was scanty, but he found some then, and exclaimed in simple candour, "I am afraid." I was anxious myself, though not yet afraid, for I had been watching, in suspicious curiosity, our Malay at the wheel. He knew what he was about. No man could have handled that craft better than he. He parried the attacks like a clever fencer. Besides, was it not unthinkable that an Englishman should be drowned with a Dutchman and three Malays in an unimportant channel of the Moluccas? Of course it was.
We sighted a large sailing prahu, and overhauled it rapidly. It was steering an erratic course, and this puzzled our Malays, who made over to determine what was wrong. We drew alongside, and saw she was abandoned, though she was dry and shipshape. Our men manoeuvred the launch, against the violent orders of their superior officer, in an effort to get a line and a man aboard the derelict. The spray smothered us again, but here was a really serious matter at last, and the Malays calmly ignored the doctor and his expostulations. A youth hung overside on his toes, and made fast. Away we went, after an alarming confusion of many bumps and clamorous fountains, with our tow. Did a doctor for soldiers foolishly imagine that Malay seamen were going to give a perfectly sound prahu to the wastes? The prahu with its outrigger foamed astern, and I was expected to watch the tow-rope. In another hour we were under the comforting lee of our volcano. Gilolo was an illusion again; its fantastic ramparts had darkened to purple under a sunset sky of rose and cinnabar.
The sea between us and Gilolo was a floor of transient opalescence. When that light went out, so did the sea, except a phosphorescent glowing in the foam from our launch and its tow. It was night; but the peak of Ternate, in the meridian, was either on fire, or else a belated hour of day was caught on its rim. Red clouds or fiery smoke stretched from the crater as luminous pennants. Within the dark between the palms along the shore points of light were sprinkled. We could hear voices on the beach.