Written by W. Somerset Maugham
Narrated by Steven Crossley

  And in the evening after the high tea which was their last meal, while they sat in the stiff parlour, the ladies working and Dr Macphail smoking his pipe, the missionary told them of his work in the islands.

‘When we went there they had no sense of sin at all,’ he said. ‘They broke the commandments one after the other and never knew they were doing wrong. And I think that was the most difficult part of my work, to instil into the natives the sense of sin.’

The Macphails knew already that Davidson had worked in the Solomons for five years before he met his wife. She had been a missionary in China, and they had become acquainted in Boston, where they were both spending part of their leave to attend a missionary congress. On their marriage they had been appointed to the islands in which they had laboured ever since.

In the course of all the conversations they had had with Mr Davidson one thing had shone out clearly and that was the man’s unflinching courage. He was a medical missionary, and he was liable to be called at any time to one or other of the islands in the group. Even the whaleboat is not so very safe a conveyance in the stormy Pacific of the wet season, but often he would be sent for in a canoe, and then the danger was great. In cases of illness or accident he never hesitated. A dozen times he had spent the whole night baling for his life, and more than once Mrs Davidson had given him up for lost.

‘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 travelled 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 colour 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 an 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 whisky. 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.’

When they got back to their house, she was on the veranda playing with one of the trader’s dark children.

‘Say a word to her,’ Dr Macphail whispered to his wife. ‘She’s all alone here, and it seems rather unkind to ignore her.’

Mrs Macphail was shy, but she was in the habit of doing what her husband bade her.

‘I think we’re fellow lodgers here,’ she said, rather foolishly.

‘Terrible, ain’t it, bein’ cooped up in a one-horse burg like this?’ answered Miss Thompson. ‘And they tell me I’m lucky to have gotten a room. I don’t see myself livin’ in a native house, and that’s what some have to do. I don’t know why they don’t have a hotel.’

They exchanged a few more words. Miss Thompson, loud-voiced and garrulous, was evidently quite willing to gossip, but Mrs Macphail had a poor stock of small talk and presently she said:

‘Well, I think we must go upstairs.’

In the evening when they sat down to their high tea, Davidson on coming in said:

‘I see that woman downstairs has a couple of sailors sitting there. I wonder how she’s gotten acquainted with them.’

‘She can’t be very particular,’ said Mrs Davidson.

They were all rather tired after the idle, aimless day.

‘If there’s going to be a fortnight of this I don’t know what we shall feel like at the end of it,’ said Dr Macphail.

‘The only thing to do is to portion out the day to different activities,’ answered the missionary. ‘I shall set aside a certain number of hours to study and a certain number to exercise, rain or fine-in the wet season you can’t afford to pay any attention to the rain-and a certain number to recreation.’

Dr Macphail looked at his companion with misgiving. Davidson’s programme oppressed him. They were eating Hamburger steak again. It seemed the only dish the cook knew how to make. Then below the gramophone began. Davidson started nervously when he heard it, but said nothing. Men’s voices floated up. Miss Thompson’s guests were joining in a well-known song and presently they heard her voice too, hoarse and loud. There was a good deal of shouting and laughing. The four people upstairs, trying to make conversation, listened despite themselves to the clink of glasses and the scrape of chairs. More people had evidently come. Miss Thompson was giving a party.

‘I wonder how she gets them all in,’ said Mrs Macphail suddenly breaking into a medical conversation between the missionary and her husband. It showed whither her thoughts were wandering. The twitch of Davidson’s face proved that, though he spoke of scientific things, his mind was busy in the same direction. Suddenly, while the doctor was giving some experience of practice on the Flanders front, rather prosily, he sprang to his feet with a cry.

‘What’s the matter, Alfred?’ asked Mrs Davidson.

‘Of course! It never occurred to me. She’s out of Iwelei.’

‘She can’t be.’

‘She came on board at Honolulu. It’s obvious. And she’s carrying on her trade here. Here.’

He uttered the last word with a passion of indignation.

‘What’s Iwelei?’ asked Mrs Macphail.

He turned his gloomy eyes on her and his voice trembled with horror.

‘The plague spot of Honolulu. The Red Light district. It was a blot on our civilization.’

Iwelei was on the edge of the city. You went down side streets by the harbour, in the darkness, across a rickety bridge, till you came to a deserted road, all ruts and holes, and then suddenly you came out into the light. There was parking room for motors on each side of the road, and there were saloons, tawdry and bright, each one noisy with its mechanical piano, and there were barbers’ shops and tobacconists. There was a stir in the air and a sense of expectant gaiety. You turned down a narrow alley, either to the right or to the left, for the road divided Iwelei into two parts, and you found yourself in the district. There were rows of little bungalows, trim and neatly painted in green, and the pathway between them was broad and straight. It was laid out like a garden-city. In its respectable regularity, its order and spruceness, it gave an impression of sardonic horror; for never can the search for love have been so systematized and ordered. The pathways were lit by a rare lamp, but they would have been dark except for the lights that came from the open windows of the bungalows. Men wandered about, looking at the women who sat at their windows, reading or sewing, for the most part taking no notice of the passers-by; and like the women they were of all nationalities. There were Americans, sailors from the ships in port, enlisted men off the gunboats, sombrely drunk, and soldiers from the regiments, white and black, quartered on the island; there were Japanese, walking in twos and threes; Hawaiians, Chinese in long robes, and Filipinos in preposterous hats. They were silent and as it were oppressed. Desire is sad.

‘It was the most crying scandal of the Pacific,’ exclaimed Davidson vehemently. ‘The missionaries had been agitating against it for years, and at last the local press took it up. The police refused to stir. You know their argument

They say that vice is inevitable and consequently the best thing is to localize and control it. The truth is, they were paid. Paid. They were paid by the saloon-keepers, paid by the bullies, paid by the women themselves. At last they were forced to move.’

‘I read about it in the papers that came on board in Honolulu,’ said Dr Macphail.

Iwelei, with its sin and shame, ceased to exist on the very day we arrived. The whole population was brought before the justices. I don’t know why I didn’t understand at once what that woman was.’

Now you come to speak of it,’ said Mrs Macphail, ‘I remember seeing her come on board only a few minutes before the boat sailed. I remember thinking at the time she was cutting it rather fine.’

‘How dare she come here!’ cried Davidson indignantly. ‘I’m not going to allow it.’

He strode towards the door.

‘What are you going to do?’ asked Macphail.

‘What do you expect me to? I’m going to stop it. I’m not going to have this house turned into-into ...’

He sought for a word that should not offend the ladies’ ears. His eyes were flashing and his pale face was paler still in his emotion.

‘It sounds as though there were three or four men down there,’ said the doctor. ‘Don’t you think it’s rather rash to go in just now?’

The missionary gave him a contemptuous look and without a word flung out of the room.

‘You know Mr Davidson very little if you think the fear of personal danger can stop him in the performance of his duty,’ said his wife.

She sat with her hands nervously clasped, a spot of colour on her high cheek-bones, listening to what was about to happen below. They all listened. They heard him clatter down the wooden stairs and throw open the door. The singing stopped suddenly, but the gramophone continued to bray out its vulgar tune. They heard Davidson’s voice and then the noise of something heavy falling. The music stopped. He had hurled the gramophone on the floor. Then again they heard Davidson’s voice, they could not make out the words, then Miss Thompson’s, loud and shrill, then a confused clamour as though several people were shouting together at the top of their lungs. Mrs Davidson gave a little gasp, and she clenched her hands more tightly. Dr Macphail looked uncertainly from her to his wife. He did not want to go down, but he wondered if they expected him to. Then there was something that sounded like a scuffle. The noise now was more distinct. It might be that Davidson was being thrown out of the room. The door was slammed. There was a moment’s silence and they heard Davidson come up the stairs again. He went to his room.

‘I think I’ll go to him,’ said Mrs Davidson.

She got up and went out.

‘If you want me, just call,’ said Mrs Macphail, and then when the other was gone: ‘I hope he isn’t hurt.’

‘Why couldn’t he mind his own business?’ said Dr Macphail.

They sat in silence for a minute or two and then they both started, for the gramophone began to play once more, defiantly, and mocking voices shouted hoarsely the words of an obscene song.

Next day Mrs Davidson was pale and tired. She complained of headache, and she looked old and wizened. She told Mrs Macphail that the missionary had not slept at all; he had passed the night in a state of frightful agitation and at five had got up and gone out. A glass of beer had been thrown over him and his clothes were stained and stinking. But a sombre fire glowed in Mrs Davidson’s eyes when she spoke of Miss Thompson.

‘She’ll bitterly rue the day when she flouted Mr Davidson,’ she said. ‘Mr Davidson has a wonderful heart and no one who is in trouble has ever gone to him without being comforted, but he has no mercy for sin, and when his righteous wrath is excited he’s terrible.’

‘Why, what will he do?’ asked Mrs Macphail.

‘I don’t know, but I wouldn’t stand in that creature’s shoes for anything in the world.’

Mrs Macphail shuddered. There was something positively alarming in the triumphant assurance of the little woman’s manner. They were going out together that morning, and they went down the stairs side by side. Miss Thompson’s door was open, and they saw her in a bedraggled dressing-gown, cooking something in a chafing-dish.

‘Good morning,’ she called. ‘Is Mr Davidson better this morning?’

They passed her in silence, with their noses in the air, as if she did not exist. They flushed, however, when she burst into a shout of derisive laughter. Mrs Davidson turned on her suddenly.

‘Don’t you dare to speak to me,’ she screamed. ‘If you insult me I shall have you turned out of here.’

‘Say, did I ask Mr Davidson to visit with me?’

‘Don’t answer her,’ whispered Mrs Macphail hurriedly.

They walked on till they were out of earshot.

‘She’s brazen, brazen,’ burst from Mrs Davidson.

Her anger almost suffocated her.

And on their way home they met her strolling towards the quay. She had all her finery on. Her great white hat with its vulgar, showy flowers was an affront She called out cheerily to them as she went by, and a couple of American sailors who were standing there grinned as the ladies set their faces to an icy stare. They got in just before the rain began to fall again.

‘I guess she’ll get her fine clothes spoilt,’ said Mrs Davidson with a bitter sneer. Davidson did not come in till they were half-way through dinner. He was wet through, but he would not change. He sat, morose and silent, refusing to eat more than a mouthful, and he stared at the slanting rain. When Mrs Davidson told him of their two encounters with Miss Thompson he did not answer. His deepening frown alone showed that he had heard.

‘Don’t you think we ought to make Mr Horn turn her out of here?’ asked Mrs Davidson. We can’t allow her to insult us.’

‘There doesn’t seem to be any other place for her to go,’ said Macphail. ‘She can live with one of the natives.’