“I’d beg him not to go sometimes,” she said, “or at least to wait till the weather was more settled, but he’d never listen. He’s obstinate, and when he’s once made up his mind, nothing can move him.”
“How can I ask the natives to put their trust in the Lord if I am afraid to do so myself?” cried Davidson. “And I’m not, I’m not. They know that if they send for me in their trouble I’ll come if it’s humanly possible. And do you think the Lord is going to abandon me when I am on his business? The wind blows at his bidding and the waves toss and rage at his word.”
Dr. Macphail was a timid man. He had never been able to get used to the hurtling of the shells over the trenches, and when he was operating in an advanced dressing-station the sweat poured from his brow and dimmed his spectacles in the effort he made to control his unsteady hand. He shuddered a little as he looked at the missionary.
“I wish I could say that I’ve never been afraid,” he said.
“I wish you could say that you believed in God,” retorted the other.
But for some reason, that evening the missionary’s thoughts traveled back to the early days he and his wife had spent on the islands.
“Sometimes Mrs. Davidson and I would look at one another and the tears would stream down our cheeks. We worked without ceasing, day and night, and we seemed to make no progress. I don’t know what I should have done without her then. When I felt my heart sink, when I was very near despair, she gave me courage and hope.”
Mrs. Davidson looked down at her work, and a slight color rose to her thin cheeks. Her hands trembled a little. She did not trust herself to speak.
“We had no one to help us. We were alone, thousands of miles from any of our own people, surrounded by darkness. When I was broken and weary she would put her work aside and take the Bible and read to me till peace came and settled upon me like sleep upon the eyelids of a child, and when at last she closed the book she’d say: ‘We’ll save them in spite of themselves.’ And I felt strong again in the Lord, and I answered: ‘Yes, with God’s help I’ll save them. I must save them.'”
He came over to the table and stood in front of it as though it were a lectern.
“You see, they were so naturally depraved that they couldn’t be brought to see their wickedness. We had to make sins out of what they thought were natural actions. We had to make it a sin, not only to commit adultery and to lie and thieve, but to expose their bodies, and to dance and not to come to church. I made it a sin for a girl to show her bosom and a sin for a man not to wear trousers.”
“How?” asked Dr. Macphail, not without surprise.
“I instituted fines. Obviously, the only way to make people realize that action is sinful is to punish them if they commit it. I fined them if they didn’t come to church, and I fined them if they danced. I fined them if they were improperly dressed. I had a tariff, and every sin had to be paid for either in money or work. And at last, I made them understand.”
“But did they never refuse to pay?”
“How could they?” asked the missionary.
“It would be a brave man who tried to stand up against Mr. Davidson,” said his wife, tightening her lips.
Dr. Macphail looked at Davidson with troubled eyes. What he heard shocked him, but he hesitated to express his disapproval.
“You must remember that in the last resort I could expel them from their church membership.””
“Did they mind that?”
Davidson smiled a little and gently rubbed his hands.
“They couldn’t sell their copra. When the men fished they got no share of the catch. It meant something very like starvation. Yes, they minded quite a lot.”
“Tell him about Fred Ohlson,” said Mrs. Davidson.
The missionary fixed his fiery eyes on Dr. Macphail.
“Fred Ohlson was a Danish trader who had been in the islands a good many years. He was a pretty rich man as traders go and he wasn’t very pleased when we came. You see, he’d had things very much his own way. He paid the natives what he liked for their copra, and he paid in goods and whiskey. He had a native wife, but he was flagrantly unfaithful to her. He was a drunkard. I gave him a chance to mend his ways, but he wouldn’t take it. He laughed at me.”
Davidson’s voice fell to a deep bass as he said the last words, and he was silent for a minute or two. The silence was heavy with menace.
“In two years he was a ruined man. He’d lost everything he’d saved in a quarter of a century. I broke him, and at last, he was forced to come to me like a beggar and beseech me to give him a passage back to Sydney.”
“I wish you could have seen him when he came to see Mr. Davidson,” said the missionary’s wife.
“He had been a fine, powerful man, with a lot of fat on him, and he had a great big voice, but now he was half the size, and he was shaking all over. He’d suddenly become an old man.”
With abstracted gaze Davidson looked out into the night. The rain was falling again.
Suddenly from below came a sound, and Davidson turned and looked questioningly at his wife. It was the sound of a gramophone, harsh and loud, wheezing out a syncopated tune.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Mrs. Davidson fixed her pince-nez more firmly on her nose.
“One of the second-class passengers has a room in the house. I guess it comes from there.”
They listened in silence, and presently they heard the sound of dancing. Then the music stopped, and they heard the popping of corks and voices raised in animated conversation.
“I daresay she’s giving a farewell party to her friends on board,” said Dr. Macphail. “The ship sails at twelve, doesn’t it?”
Davidson made no remark, but he looked at his watch.
“Are you ready?” he asked his wife.
She got up and folded her work.
“Yes, I guess I am,” she answered.
“It’s early to go to bed yet, isn’t it?” said the doctor.
“We have a good deal of reading to do,” explained Mrs. Davidson. “Wherever we are, we read a chapter of the Bible before retiring for the night and we study it with the commentaries, you know, and discuss it thoroughly. It’s a wonderful training for the mind.”
The two couples bade one another good night. Dr. and Mrs. Macphail were left alone. For two or three minutes they did not speak.
“I think I’ll go and fetch the cards,” the doctor said at last.
Mrs. Macphail looked at him doubtfully. Her conversation with the Davidsons had left her a little uneasy, but she did not like to say that she thought they had better not play cards when the Davidsons might come in at any moment. Dr. Macphail brought them and she watched him, though with a vague sense of guilt, while he laid out his patience. Below the sound of revelry continued.
It was fine enough next day, and the Macphails, condemned to spend a fortnight of idleness at Pago-Pago, set about making the best of things. They went down to the quay and got out of their boxes a number of books. The doctor called on the chief surgeon of the naval hospital and went round the beds with him. They left cards on the governor. They passed Miss Thompson on the road. The doctor took off his hat, and she gave him a “Good morning, doc.,” in a loud, cheerful voice. She was dressed as on the day before, in a white frock, and her shiny white boots with their high heels, her fat legs bulging over the tops of them, were strange things on that exotic scene.
“I don’t think she’s very suitably dressed, I must say,” said Mrs. Macphail. “She looks extremely common to me.”