Mr. Pottle And The South-Sea Cannibals
by Richard Connell
Mr. Pottle was a barber, but also a man of imagination, and as his hands went through their accustomed motions, his mind was far away, recalling what he had read the night before.
“Bright Marquesas sunlight glinted from the cutlass of the intrepid explorer as with a sweep of his arm he brought the blade down on the tattooed throat of the man-eating savage.”
Mr. Pottle’s errant mind was jerked back sharply from the South Seas to Granville, Ohio, by a protesting voice.
“Hey, Pottle, what’s bitin’ you? You took a slice out o’ my Adam’s apple that time.”
Mr. Pottle, with apologetic murmurs, rubbed the wound with an alum stick; then he dusted his victim with talcum powder, and gave the patented chair a little kick, so that its occupant was shot bolt upright.
“Bay rum?” asked Mr. Pottle, professionally.
“Sweet Lilac Tonic?”
“Naked savages danced and howled round the great pot in which the trussed explorer had been placed. The cannibal chief, fire-brand in hand, made ready to ignite the fagots under the pot. It began to look bad for the explorer.”
Again a shrill voice of protest punctured Mr. Pottle’s day-dream.
“Hey, Pottle, come to life! You’ve went and put Sweet Lilac Tonic on me ‘stead of plain water. I ain’t going to no coon ball. You’ve gone and smelled me up like a screamin’ geranium.”
“Why, so I have, so I have,” said Mr. Pottle, in accents of surprise and contrition. “Sorry, Luke. It’ll wear off in a day or two. Guess I must be gettin’ absent-minded.”
“That’s what you said last Saddy when you clipped a piece out o’ Virgil Overholt’s ear,” observed Luke, with some indignation. “What’s bitin’ you, anyhow, Pottle? You used to be the best barber in the county before you took to readin’ them books.”
“All about cannibals and explorers and the South-Sea Islands,” answered Luke.
“They’re good books,” said Mr. Pottle warmly. His eyes brightened. “I just got a new one,” he said. “It’s called ‘Green Isles, Brown Man-Eaters, and a White Man.’ I sat up till two readin’ it. It’s about the Marquesas Islands, and it’s a darn’ excitin’ book, Luke.”
“It excited you so much you sliced my Adam’s apple,” grumbled Luke, clamping on his rubber collar. “You had better cut out this fool readin’.”
“Don’t you ever read, Luke?”
“Sure I do. ‘The Mornin’ News-Press’ for week-days, ‘The P’lice Gazette’ when I come here to get shaved Saddy nights, and the Bible for Sundays. That’s readin’ enough for any man.”
“Did you ever read ‘Robinson Crusoe’?”
“Nope, but I heard him.”
“Heard him? Heard who?”
“Crusoe,” said Luke, snapping his ready-tied tie into place.
“Heard him? You couldn’t have heard him.”
“I couldn’t, hey? Well, I did.”
“Where?” demanded Mr. Pottle.
“Singin’ on a phonograph,” said Luke.
Mr. Pottle said nothing; Luke was a regular customer, and in successful modern business the customer is always right. However, Mr. Pottle seized a strop and by his vigorous stroppings silently expressed his disgust at a man who hadn’t heard of “Robinson Crusoe,” for Robinson was one of Mr. Pottle’s deities.
When Luke reached the door, he turned.
“Say, Pottle,” he said, “if you’re so nutty about these here South Sea Islands, why don’t you go there?”
Mr. Pottle ceased his stropping.
“I am going,” he said.
Luke gave a dubious hoot and vanished. He did not realize that he had heard Mr. Pottle make the big decision of his life.
That night Mr. Pottle finished the book, and dreamed, as he had dreamed on many a night since the lure of the South Seas first cast a spell on him, that in a distant, sun-loved isle, bright with greens and purples, he reclined beneath the mana-mana-hine (or umbrella fern) on his own paepae (or platform), a scarlet pareu (or breech-clout) about his middle, a yellow hibiscus flower in his hair, while the kukus (or small green turtle-doves) cooed in the branches of the pevatvii (or banana-tree), and Bunnidori (that is, she, with the Lips of Love), a tawny maid of wondrous beauty, played softly to him on the ukulele. The tantalizing fragrance of a bowl of popoi (or pudding) mingled in his nostrils with the more delicate perfume of the golden blossoms of the puu-epu (or mulberry-tree). A sound in the jungle, a deep boom! boom! boom! roused him from this reverie.
“What is it, O Bunnidori?” he asked.
“‘Tis a feast, O my Pottle, Lord of the Menikes (that is, white men),” lisped his companion.
“Upon what do the men in the jungle feast, O plump and pleasing daughter of delight?” inquired Mr. Pottle, who was up on Polynesian etiquette.
She lowered her already low voice still lower.
“Upon the long pig that speaks,” she whispered.
A delicious shudder ran down the spine of the sleeping Mr. Pottle, for from his reading he knew that “the long pig that speaks” means–man!
For Mr. Pottle had one big ambition, one great suppressed desire. It was the dearest wish of his thirty-six years of life to meet a cannibal, a real cannibal, face to face, eye to eye.
Next day he sold his barber’s shop. Two months and seventeen days later he was unpacking his trunk in the tiny settlement of Vait-hua, in the Marquesas Islands, in the heart of the South Seas.
The air was balmy, the sea deep purple, the nodding palms and giant ferns of the greenest green were exactly as advertised; but when the first week or two of enchantment had worn off, Mr. Pottle owned to a certain feeling of disappointment.
He tasted popoi and found it rather nasty; the hotel in which he stayed–the only one–was deficient in plumbing, but not in fauna. The natives–he had expected great things of the natives–were remarkably like underdone Pullman porters wrapped in bandana handkerchiefs. They were not exciting, they exhibited no inclination to eat Mr. Pottle or one another, they coveted his pink shirt, and begged for a drink from his bottle of Sweet Lilac Tonic.
He mentioned his disappointment at these evidences of civilization to Tiki Tiu, the astute native who kept the general store.
Mr. Pottle’s mode of conversation was his own invention. From the books he had read he improvised a language. It was simple. He gave English words a barbaric sound, usually by suffixing “um” or “ee,” shouted them at the top of his voice into the ear of the person with whom he was conversing, and repeated them in various permutations. He addressed Tiki Tiu with brisk and confident familiarity.
“Helloee, Tiki Tiu. Me wantum see can-balls. Can-balls me wantum see. Me see can-balls wantum.”
The venerable native, who spoke seventeen island dialects and tongues, and dabbled in English, Spanish, and French, appeared to apprehend his meaning; indeed, one might almost have thought he had heard this question before, for he answered promptly:
“No more can-balls here. All Baptists.”
“Where are can-balls? Can-balls where are? Where can-balls are?” demanded Mr. Pottle.
Tiki Tiu closed his eyes and let blue smoke filter through his nostrils. Finally he said:
“Isle of O-pip-ee.”
“Isle of O-pip-ee?” Mr. Pottle grew excited. “Where is? Is where?”
“Two hundred miles south,” answered Tiki Tiu.
Mr. Pottle’s eyes sparkled. He was on the trail.
“How go there? Go there how? There go how?” he asked.
Tiki Tiu considered. Then he said:
“I take. Nice li’l’ schooner.”
“How much?” asked Mr. Pottle. “Much how?”
Tiki Tiu considered again.
“Ninety-three dol’s,” he said.
“Goodum!” cried Mr. Pottle, and counted the proceeds of 186 hair-cuts into the hand of Tiki Tiu.
“You take me to-mollow? To-mollow you take me? Me you take to-mollow? To-mollow? To-mollow? To-mollow?” asked Mr. Pottle.
“Yes,” promised Tiki Tiu; “to-mollow.”
Mr. Pottle stayed up all night packing; from time to time he referred to much-thumbed copies of “Robinson Crusoe” and “Green Isles, Brown Man-Eaters, and a White Man.”
Tiki Tiu’s nice li’l’ schooner deposited Mr. Pottle and his impedimenta on the small, remote Isle of O-pip-ee; Tiki Tiu agreed to return for him in a month.
“This is something like it,” exclaimed Mr. Pottle as he unpacked his camera, his ukulele, his razors, his canned soup, his heating outfit, and his bathing-suit. Only the wild parrakeets heard him; save for their calls, an ominous silence hung over the thick foliage of O-pip-ee. There was not the ghost of a sign of human habitation.
Mr. Pottle, vaguely apprehensive of sharks, pitched his pup-tent far up on the beach; to-morrow would be time enough to look for cannibals.
He lay smoking and thinking. He was happy. The realization of a life’s ambition lay, so to speak, just around the corner. To-morrow he could turn that corner–if he wished.
He squirmed as something small nibbled at his hip-bone, and he wondered why writers of books on the South Seas make such scant mention of the insects. Surely they must have noticed the little creatures, which had, he discovered, a way of making their presence felt.
He wondered, too, now that he came to think of it, if he hadn’t been a little rash in coming alone to a cannibal-infested isle with no weapons of defense but a shot-gun, picked up at a bargain at the last minute, and his case of razors. True, in all the books by explorers he had read, the explorer never once had actually been eaten; he always lived to write the book. But what about the explorers who had not written books? What had happened to them?
He flipped a centipede off his ankle, and wondered if he hadn’t been just a little too impulsive to sell his profitable barber-shop, to come many thousand miles over strange waters, to maroon himself on the lonely Isle of O-pip-ee. At Vait-hua he had heard that cannibals do not fancy white men for culinary purposes. He gave a little start as he looked down at his own bare legs and saw that the tropic sun had already tinted them a coffee hue.
Mr. Pottle did not sleep well that night; strange sounds made his eyes fly open. Once it was a curious scuttling along the beach. Peeping out from his pup-tent, he saw half a dozen tupa (or giant tree-climbing crabs) on a nocturnal raid on a cocoanut-grove. Later he heard the big nuts come crashing down. The day shift of insects had quit, and the night shift, fresh and hungry, came to work; inquisitive vampire bats butted their soft heads against his tent.
At dawn he set about finding a permanent abode. He followed a small fresh-water stream two hundred yards inland, and came to a coral cave by a pool, a ready-made home, cool and, more important, well concealed. He spent the day settling down, chasing out the bats, putting up mosquito-netting, tidying up. He dined well off cocoanut milk and canned sardines, and was so tired that he fell asleep before he could change his bathing-suit for pajamas. He slept fairly well, albeit he dreamed that two cannibal kings were disputing over his prostrate form whether he would be better as a ragout or stuffed with chestnuts.
Waking, he decided to lie low and wait for the savages to show themselves, for he knew from Tiki Tiu that the Isle of O-pip-ee was not more than seven miles long and three or four miles wide; sooner or later they must pass near him. He figured that there was logic in this plan, for no cannibal had seen him land; therefore he knew that the cannibals were on the isle, but they did not know that he was. The advantage was his.
For days he remained secluded, subsisting on canned foods, cocoanuts, mei (or breadfruit), and an occasional boiled baby feke (or young devil-fish), a nest of which Mr. Pottle found on one furtive moonlight sally to the beach.
Emboldened by this sally and by the silence of the woods, Mr. Pottle made other expeditions away from his cave; on one he penetrated fully five hundred yards into the jungle. He was prowling, like a Cooper Indian, among the faufee (or lacebark-trees) when he heard a sound that sent him scurrying and quaking back to his lair.
It was a faint sound that the breezes bore to him, so faint that he could not be sure; but it sounded like some far-off barbaric instrument mingling its dim notes with those of a human voice raised in a weird, primeval chant.
But the savages did not show themselves, and finding no cannibals by night, Mr. Pottle grew still bolder; he ventured on short explorations by day. He examined minutely his own cove, and then one morning crept over a low ledge and into the next cove. He made his way cautiously along the smooth, white beach. The morning was still, calm, beautiful. Its peace all but drove thoughts of cannibals from his mind. He came to a strip of land running into the sea; another cove lay beyond. Mr. Pottle was an impulsive man; he pushed through the keoho (or thorn-bushes); his foot slipped; he rolled down a declivity and into the next cove.
He did not stay there; he did not even tarry. What he saw sent him dashing through the thorn-bushes and along the white sand like a hundred-yard sprinter. In the sand of the cove were many imprints of naked human feet.
A less stout-hearted man than Mr. Pottle would never have come out of his cave again; but he had come eight thousand miles to see a cannibal. An over-mastering desire had spurred him on; he would not give up now. Of such stuff are Ohio barbers made.
A few days later, at twilight, he issued forth from his cave again. Around his loins was a scarlet pareu; he had discarded his bathing-suit as too civilized. In his long, black hair was a yellow hibiscus flower.
Like a burglar, he crept along the beach to the bushy promontory that hid the cove where the foot-prints were, he wiggled through the bush, he slid down to the third beach, and crouched behind a large rock. The beach seemed deserted; the muttering of the ocean was the only sound Mr. Pottle heard. Another rock, a dozen feet away, seemed to offer better concealment, and he stepped out toward it, and then stopped short. Mr. Pottle stood face to face with a naked, brown savage.
Mr. Pottle’s feet refused to take him away; a paralysis such as one has in nightmares rooted him to the spot. His returning faculties took in these facts: first, the savage was unarmed; second, Mr. Pottle had forgotten to bring his shot-gun. It was a case of man to man-eater.
The savage was large, well-fed, almost fat; his long black hair fringed his head; he did not wear a particularly bloodthirsty expression; indeed, he appeared startled and considerably alarmed.
Reason told Mr. Pottle that friendliness was the best policy. Instinctively, he recalled the literature of his youth, and how Buffalo Bill had acted in a like circumstance. He raised his right hand solemnly in the air and ejaculated, “How!”
The savage raised his right hand solemnly in the air, and in the same tone also ejaculated, “How!” Mr. Pottle had begun famously. He said loudly:
“Who you? You who? Who you?”
The savage, to Mr. Pottle’s surprise, answered after a brief moment:
Here was luck. The man-eater could talk the Pottle lingo.
“Oh,” said Mr. Pottle, to show that he understood, “you–Mealy.”
The savage shook his head.
“No,” he said; “Me–Lee. Me–Lee.” He thumped his barrel-like chest with each word.
“Oh, I see,” cried Mr. Pottle; “you Mealy-mealy.”
The savage made a face that among civilized people would have meant that he did not think much of Mr. Pottle’s intellect.
“Who you?” inquired Mealy-mealy.
Mr. Pottle thumped his narrow chest.
“Me, Pottle. Pottle!”
“Oh, you Pottle-pottle,” said the savage, evidently pleased with his own powers of comprehension.
Mr. Pottle let it go at that. Why argue with a cannibal? He addressed the savage again.
“Mealy-mealy, you eatum long pig? Eatum long pig you? Long pig you eatum?”
This question agitated Mealy-mealy. He trembled. Then he nodded his head in the affirmative, a score of rapid nods.
Mr. Pottle’s voice faltered a little as he asked the next question.
“Where you gottum tribe? You gottum tribe where? Tribe you gottum where?”
Mealy-mealy considered, scowled, and said:
“Gottum velly big tribe not far. Velly fierce. Eatum long pig. Eatum Pottle-pottle.”
Mr. Pottle thought it would be a good time to go, but he could think of no polite excuse for leaving. An idea occurred to Mealy-mealy.
“Where your tribe, Pottle-pottle?”
His tribe? Mr. Pottle’s eyes fell on his own scarlet pareu and the brownish legs beneath it. Mealy-mealy thought he was a cannibal, too. With all his terror, he had a second or two of unalloyed enjoyment of the thought. Like all barbers, he had played poker. He bluffed.
“My tribe velly, velly, velly, velly, velly, velly big,” he cried.
“Where is?” asked Mealy-mealy, visibly moved by this news.
“Velly near,” cried Mr. Pottle; “hungry for long pig; for long pig hungry—-“
There was suddenly a brown blur on the landscape. With the agility of an ape, the huge savage had turned, darted down the beach, plunged into the bush, and disappeared.
“He’s gone to get his tribe,” thought Mr. Pottle, and fled in the opposite direction.
When he reached his cave, panting, he tried to fit a cartridge into his shot-gun; he’d die game, anyhow. But rust had ruined the neglected weapon, and he flung it aside and took out his best razor. But no cannibals came.
He was scared, but happy. He had seen his cannibal; more, he had talked with him; more still, he had escaped gracing the festal board by a snake’s knuckle. He prudently decided to stay in his cave until the sails of Tiki Tiu’s schooner hove in sight.
But an instinct stronger than fear drove him out into the open: his stock of canned food ran low, and large red ants got into his flour. He needed cocoanuts and breadfruit and baby fekes (or young octopi). He knew that numerous succulent infant fekes lurked in holes in his own cove, and thither he went by night to pull them from their homes. Hitherto he had encountered only small fekes, with tender tentacles only a few feet long; but that night Mr. Pottle had the misfortune to plunge his naked arm into the watery nest when the father of the family was at home. He realized his error too late.
A clammy tentacle, as long as a fire hose, as strong as the arm of a gorilla, coiled round his arm, and his scream was cut short as the giant devil-fish dragged him below the water.
The water was shallow. Mr. Pottle got a foothold, forced his head above water, and began to yell for help and struggle for his life.
The chances against a nude Ohio barber of 140 pounds in a wrestling match with an adult octopus are exactly a thousand to one. The giant feke so despised his opponent that he used only two of his eight muscular arms. In their slimy, relentless clutch Mr. Pottle felt his strength going fast. As his favorite authors would have put it, “it began to look bad for Mr. Pottle.”
The thought that Mr. Pottle thought would be his last on this earth was, “I wouldn’t mind being eaten by cannibals, but to be drowned by a trick fish—-“
Mr. Pottle threshed about in one final, frantic flounder; his strength gave out; he shut his eyes.
He heard a shrill cry, a splashing in the water, felt himself clutched about the neck from behind, and dragged away from the feke. He opened his eyes and struggled weakly. One tentacle released its grip. Mr. Pottle saw by the tropic moon’s light that some large creature was doing battle with the feke. It was a man, a large brown man who with a busy ax hacked the gristly limbs from the feke as fast as they wrapped around him. Mr. Pottle staggered to the dry beach; a tentacle was still wound tight round his shoulder, but there was no octopus at the other end of it.
The angry noise of the devil-fish–for, when wounded, they snarl like kicked curs–stopped. The victorious brown man strode out of the water to where Mr. Pottle swayed on the moonlit sand. It was Mealy-mealy.
“Bad fishum!” said Mealy-mealy, with a grin.
“Good manum!” cried Mr. Pottle, heartily.
Here was romance, here was adventure, to be snatched from the jaws, so to speak, of death by a cannibal! It was unheard of. But a disquieting thought occurred to Mr. Pottle, and he voiced it.
“Mealy-mealy, why you save me? Why save you me? Why you me save?”
Mealy-mealy’s grin seemed to fade, and in its place came another look that made Mr. Pottle wish he were back in the anaconda grip of the feke.
“My tribe hungry for long pig,” growled Mealy-mealy. He seemed to be trembling with some powerful emotion. Hunger?
Mr. Pottle knew where his only chance for escape lay.
“My tribe velly, velly, velly hungry, too,” he cried. “Velly, velly, velly near.”
He thrust his fingers into his mouth and gave a piercing school-boy whistle. As if in answer to it there came a crashing and floundering in the bushes. His bluff had worked only too well; it must be the fellow man-eaters of Mealy-mealy.
Mr. Pottle turned and ran for his life. Fifty yards he sped, and then realized that he did not hear the padding of bare feet on the sand behind him or feel hot breath on the back of his neck. He dared to cast a look over his shoulder. Far down the beach the moonlight showed him a flying brown figure against the silver-white sand. It was Mealy-mealy, and he was going in the opposite direction as fast as ever his legs would take him.
Surprise drove fear temporarily from Mr. Pottle’s mind as he watched the big cannibal become a blur, then a speck, then nothing. As he watched Mealy-mealy recede, he saw another dark figure emerge from the bush where the noise had been, and move slowly out on the moon-strewn beach.
It was a baby wild pig. It sniffed at the ocean, squealed, and trotted back into the bush.
As he gnawed his morning cocoanut, Mr. Pottle was still puzzled. He was afraid of Mealy-mealy; that he admitted. But at the same time it was quite clear that Mealy-mealy was afraid of him. He was excited and more than a little gratified. What a book he could write! Should he call it “Cannibal-Bound on O-pip-ee,” or, “Cannibals Who have almost Eaten Me”?
Tiki Tiu’s schooner would be coming for him very soon now,–he’d lost track of the exact time,–and he would be almost reluctant to leave the isle. Almost.
Mr. Pottle had another glimpse of a cannibal next day. Toward evening he stole out to pick some supper from a breadfruit-tree not far from his cave, a tree which produced particularly palatable mei (or breadfruit).
He drew his pareu tight around him and slipped through the bushes; as he neared the tree he saw another figure approaching it with equal stealth from the opposite direction; the setting sun was reflected from the burnished brown of the savage’s shoulders. At the same time Mr. Pottle spied the man, the man spied him. The savage stopped short, wheeled about, and tore back in the direction from which he had come. Mr. Pottle did not get a good look at his face, but he ran uncommonly like Mealy-mealy.
Mr. Pottle thought it best not to climb the mei-tree that evening; he returned hastily to his cave, and finished up the breakfast cocoanut.
Over a pipe he thought. He was pleased, thrilled by his sight of a cannibal; but he was not wholly satisfied. He had thought it would be enough for him to get one fleeting glimpse of an undoubted man-eater in his native state, but it wasn’t. Before he left the Isle of O-pip-ee he wanted to see the whole tribe in a wild dance about a bubbling pot. Tiki Tiu’s schooner might come on the morrow. He must act.
He crept out of the cave and stood in the moonlight, breathing the perfume of the jungle, feeling the cool night air, hearing the mellow notes of the Polynesian nightingale. Adventure beckoned to him. He started in the direction Mealy-mealy had run.
At first he progressed on tiptoes, then he sank to all fours, and crawled along slowly, pig-wise. On, on he went; he must have crept more than a mile when a sound stopped him–a sound he had heard before. It was faint, yet it seemed near: it was the sound of some primitive musical instrument blending with the low notes of a tribal chant. It seemed to come from a sheltered hollow not two dozen yards ahead.
He crouched down among the ferns and listened. The chant was crooned softly in a deep voice, and to the straining ears of Mr. Pottle it seemed vaguely familiar, like a song heard in dreams. The words came through the thick tangle of jungle weeds:
“Eeet slon ay a teep a ari.”
Mr. Pottle, fascinated, wiggled forward to get a look at the tribe. Like a snake, he made his tortuous approach. The singing continued; he saw a faint glow through the foliage–the campfire. He eased himself to the crest of a little hummock, pushed aside a great fern leaf and looked.
Sitting comfortably in a steamer-chair was Mealy-mealy. In his big brown hands was a shiny banjo at which he plucked gently. Near his elbow food with a familiar smell bubbled in an aluminum dish over a trim canned-heat outfit; an empty baked-bean can with a gaudy label lay beside it. From time to time Mealy-mealy glanced idly at a pink periodical popular in American barber-shops. The song he sang to himself burst intelligibly on Mr. Pottle’s ears–
“It’s a long way to Tipperary.”
Mealy-mealy stopped; his eye had fallen on the staring eyes of Mr. Pottle. He caught up his ax and was about to swing it when Mr. Pottle stood up, stepped into the circle of light, pointed an accusing finger at Mealy-mealy and said:
“Are you a cannibal?”
Mealy-mealy’s ax and jaw dropped.
“What the devil are you?” he sputtered in perfect American.
“I’m a barber from Ohio,” said Mr. Pottle.
Mealy-mealy emitted a sudden whooping roar of laughter.
“So am I,” he said.
Mr. Pottle collapsed limply into the steamer-chair.
“What’s your name?” he asked in a weak voice.
“Bert Lee, head barber at the Schmidt House, Bucyrus, Ohio,” said the big man. He slapped his fat, bare chest. “Me–Lee,” he said, and laughed till the jungle echoed.
“Did you read ‘Green Isles, Brown Man-Eaters, and a White Man’?” asked Mr. Pottle, feebly.
“I’d like to meet the man who wrote it,” said Mr. Pottle.