A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 12

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Chez the Rev. James Green,
Papeete, 25th. October

Dear Lady Gordon,—I have just heard that a vessel is about to sail, and will carry mails, so, though I have not time to write at length, I must send a few lines by her. Though antagonisms are not perhaps so openly virulent here as in Samoa, there is nevertheless such jealousy among the traders that they often try to sneak out of harbour unknown to their neighbours, and so we have just lost the chance of sending letters viâ Auckland by a fine vessel belonging to Godeffroy; but no one knew she was going, till she actually sailed.

We returned last night from the grand tour of this isle on the occasion of King Pomare's accession to the throne. Admiral Serre most kindly arranged that I should be of the party, and really I do not think I ever enjoyed an expedition so much in all my life. It was wonderful luck for me just to have come in for so exceptional a chance; for, of course, under no other circumstances could I have seen either the country or the people to such advantage. It was really like a bit of a fairy tale, and all fitted in so smoothly and naturally without the smallest trouble or care of any sort, so far as I was concerned. In every respect it has been a most delightful trip,—good weather, good roads, and most agreeable company. I cannot tell you how often I longed to have you with us (remembering how you love driving, and that carriages are an unknown luxury in Fiji)!

The admiral had a capital carriage and excellent horses, and such a jovial great half-caste driver. And the broad grass drives along the shore, generally skirting the sea or passing through the heavenly orange-groves, are so delicious, and you glide along so silently through ever-changing scenes of beauty. How you would have enjoyed it all!

Besides the royal party and a few native chiefs, there were about twenty French officers and the admiral's excellent brass band, consisting of twenty sailors, who have been trained and are kept well up to the mark by M. D'Oncieue de la Battye, the admiral's chef d'étât-major, who is an excellent musician, and a most agreeable companion—which was fortunate, as either he or M. Hardouin, the A.D.C., always occupied the third seat in the carriage. Everything on the whole expedition was admirably arranged; and although we were such a very large party, there was always good accommodation provided, and everything was done comfortably.

Each district possesses a very large cheferie or fareo,—i.e., a very large native house built for public purposes—meetings, and the accommodation of strangers. Like all the native houses here, they consist chiefly of a heavy thatch-roof, rounded at both ends, supported on a mere framework of posts, and leaving the sides all open, save at night, when they are screened in. They generally have good wooden floors, often smooth enough to dance upon.

The first of these at which we stopped was most beautifully decorated, and tables spread for 300 persons, the chief's family supplying that for les gros bonnets—and each family in the district taking entire charge of one table. At other places we found the feast spread in temporary houses, but everywhere it was gracefully done.

Our night quarters were also most comfortably arranged, and I was especially charmed by the beds provided for us,—very large and soft, stuffed with the silky tree-cotton; abundant pillows; real mosquito-nets and light curtains, tied back with gay ribbons; and such pretty coverlets of patchwork, really triumphs of art needle-work. Those most in favour have crimson patterns on a white ground, but the designs are highly artistic. It seems that a Tahitian housewife prides herself on her snowy linen and downy pillows—a very happy adaptation of foreign customs. Whenever it was possible so to arrange it, Marau and I shared the same room, which was a pleasant arrangement.

Each morning our procession of fifteen wheeled vehicles started at 7 a.m., preceded by native outriders carrying the gay district flag, which made a pretty bit of colour as we passed through the green glades. A drive of seven or eight miles brought us to our halting-point, where we found masses of people assembled to sing himènes of welcome, all, however, dressed in black, relieved only by crowns and handkerchiefs of yellow, or else a wreath or hat of snowy white bamboo or arrowroot fibre, and in their hair soft plumes of snowy reva-reva,—a filmy ribbon extracted from the cocoa-palm leaf. All the women were supposed to have cut off their beautiful long black hair, as mourning for old Queen Pomare; but happily a good many had only shammed, so now there is no lack of glossy black tresses. Those, however, who affect deep mourning, still wear black straw-hats trimmed with crape, and look most lugubrious, their dark sallow complexions and raven hair giving them such a very sombre appearance.

All the women without exception have their dresses cut on the pattern of the old English sacques worn by our grandmothers—that is, a yoke on the shoulders, from which the skirt falls to the feet, and trails behind. The effect is very easy and graceful, and it is a matter of deep congratulation that the dress in fashion in Europe at the period when Tahiti adopted foreign garments, should have been one so suitable. It would be impossible to devise a cooler dress, as it only touches the neck, shoulders, and (very loosely) the arms. The one under-garment is low-necked, short-sleeved, and of such a length as to form a sweeping skirt, thus combining chemise and petticoat. Shoes and stockings are of course superfluous.

Having halted and feasted at the morning district, we started again about two o'clock, drove seven or eight miles further, always through lovely country, and so reached our night quarters, where we were again received by assembled multitudes and congratulatory himènes. Then the band played, as it had done at our noon-day halt, to the great delight of the people; and we strolled about, and bathed in some clear crystalline stream, reassembling for a great native feast, which, however, was served European fashion, as each district possesses its own crockery, glass, knives, forks, spoons, &c. The admiral provided French wines and bread.

Then followed more himène singing; while we sat listening, entranced, either in the great house, or on the beautiful sea-shore, in the perfect moonlight. Himènes are a new sensation in music, utterly indescribable—the strangest, wildest, most perplexing chants; very musical and varied, quite impossible to catch. They are a curious and fascinating sort of glee-chorus, in which every one seems to introduce any variations he fancies, but always in perfect tune, and producing a combination like most melodious cathedral chimes—rising and falling in rippling music, and a droning undertone sounding through it all. The whole air seems full of musical voices perfectly harmonised—now in unison, now heard singly; one moment lulled to softest tones, then swelling in clear ringing melody; voices now running together, now diverging. The singers compose their own words, which sometimes describe the most trivial details of passing events, sometimes are fragments of most sacred hymns—according to the impulse of the moment. Perhaps this last fact gives us a clue to the origin of the word hymn-ene; though I fancy that the words sung are often those of older and less seemly songs than the hymns taught by the early missionaries.

This is an outline of what has been our daily life for the last ten days. All has gone off without a single drawback, and it has been a spell of thorough enjoyment: nothing could exceed the kindness of every one, whether French or Tahitian. I think that of all the lovely isles I have visited, these certainly deserve the palm. Tahiti is a miniature of Ceylon, omitting all the great hideous coffee districts in the interior (districts made hideous by denudation—the glorious primeval forests having been ruthlessly sacrificed to make way for gold-producing crops).

The lovely hills and valleys of Tahiti and Moorea have only gained in beauty by the introduction of the fruit-bearing trees, which now form a most important feature in the general wealth of foliage—the dense thickets of orange-trees having all grown from those brought from Sydney by Mr Henry, one of the early missionaries. Strangely enough, the most healthy trees are those which have grown self-sown from the seed thrown about carelessly by the natives, when they retired to some quiet valley to brew their orange-rum in secret. These trees have thriven far better than those much cared for, and transplanted.

The splendid mango-trees, whose mass of dark foliage is now so prominent a feature on all sides, were introduced less than twenty years ago by the French, who have taken infinite trouble to procure all the very best sorts, and have succeeded to perfection.

But the special charm of these isles lies in the multitude of their streams and rivulets. We calculated that in driving round Tahiti—a distance of 160 miles—we crossed 150 streams, all clear as crystal. Several of these are large rivers; and all have enchanting pools, most tempting to bathers.

The general form of the main isle is that of a double gourd—a large circle divided by a rocky ridge from a small one, the centre being composed of a tumbled wilderness of mountains rising to a height of 7000 feet. Precipitous crags, pinnacles, and narrow ridges of black volcanic rock, which the natives themselves never care to scale, tower in grand forms at the head of each of the countless richly wooded valleys, to all of which we looked up from the sea-level. There was only one point where we rose to any height—namely, the rocky ridge which connects the peninsula with the main isle.

I must not write more at present lest I should lose the mail. Next week, if all is well, the Seignelay is to take the royal party across to beautiful Moorea, there to repeat the pleasures of the last fortnight on a smaller scale. And very soon after our return thence, Mrs Brander intends to despatch one of her large vessels to Honolulu to fetch cattle, and I purpose taking passage by her, hoping that I shall thus have time to see something of the Sandwich Isles, and there find letters from you, with such definite plans as shall guide me whether to meet you in Australia or New Zealand about Christmas. You will scarcely venture to keep the children in Fiji any later in the hot season.—With all loving greetings, yours ever,

C. F. G. C.