A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 14
We woke this morning to find this beautiful world bathed in sunshine, and I slipped out for a lovely early stroll along the shore. There was a great calm, the sea literally without a ripple, reflecting the mellow tones of the sky. I followed a wide grass road passing through a cocoa plantation—luxuriant young palms of all ages, the ground beneath them carpeted with succulent grasses; a combination of fresh greens delightful to the eye. I think the heavy rain must have driven all the land-crabs out of their holes, for truly they were legion, and all were busily feeding, till, aware of a foot-step, they darted back to their burrows. In some spots they clustered in such numbers that the whole bank seemed in motion. Some of these are as large as a good Scotch "parten;" but there are also a vast number of the tiny crab, with one large bright-coloured claw, which love the muddy shore at the mouth of the rivers, where you may see them by the thousand, feeding busily with a tiny claw while holding the large one before them as a shield. Evidently, however, they know discretion to be the better part of valour, for at the faintest movement which reveals the approach of danger they vanish into their mud-holes faster than the twinkling of an eye.
Our morning halt was at Afaahiti, a small village of which the king himself is the chief, for which reason it had been arranged that he should sleep there last night. We found Marau and the ladies of the village stringing wreaths of sweet white blossoms, with which they crowned themselves and us; and then we all adjourned to breakfast in a bamboo house, decorated in the usual style with twisted and plaited leaves, and deep fringes of dyed fibre. Himènes, of course,—and then, while the band entertained the people, we, the unquiet spirits, wandered down to explore the shore, which is overshadowed by large trees, beneath which we found various kinds of large shells.
At noon we drove on to Pueu, where we were welcomed by a very large assemblage, and conducted to the cheferie or district hall, really a splendid room, with a beautiful floor: it is like a great ball-room. All the dining-tables were set at one end, while nine very pretty beds, with artistic crimson and white quilts, and mosquito-nets tied up with bright ribbons, were ranged down one side of the room. I am ashamed to say that we all took a most uncourteous fit of laughing; for really at the first glimpse the row of beds seemed to multiply, and we fancied we were all to occupy this one room; but we soon discovered that only the junior officers were to share it, and that excellent quarters had been prepared for us all in different houses. The best house of three rooms was assigned to the admiral, his son, and myself; and here I am now cosily ensconced for a chat with you. My room, which opens out into the verandah, has no doors, so my black waterproof sheet and the green tartan plaid, inseparable companion of all my wanderings east or west, act as good curtains.
This is a lovely place. In the afternoon we roamed through fragrant orange-groves, and along the beautiful shore, and I managed to secure a sketch of the village. As a matter of course there is a large Protestant church, of which all the population are members, and a tiny Roman Catholic chapel, without any congregation.
An exceedingly pretty banquet awaited us in the large cheferie, after which we strolled about in the lovely moonlight, while the village choirs sang their melodious himènes. At a very short distance they sound like full-toned cathedral chimes.
At grey dawn Queen Marau came to my room to early tea, and told me that the house which had been assigned to her and the king was so purely native, that they had no beds—only mats and pillows—no hardship in this delightful climate, but a curious distribution of hospitality, when to each young lieutenant had been assigned so luxuriant a couch.
The drive along the peninsula was most lovely. Always by the broad green road running close to the sea, and passing through richest foliage of all sorts and forms; crossing crystalline streams which flowed down beautiful glens, with great shapely hills on either side, and some lonely peak towering at the head of the dark ravine. We came to one broad river whence the view was so lovely that the admiral most kindly decided to let one of the carriages wait while I sketched; an arrangement highly satisfactory to its occupants, who went off for a bathe in the clear delicious stream, while I stood on the bridge and worked diligently till the last of our heavy baggage-carts came across, and proved to be the last straw which that poor bridge could bear. An ominous crack, then a crash, and the heavy fourgon had broken through the bridge, but happily rested on the strong cross timbers, and with infinite trouble it was unloaded and raised. Then the bridge had to be repaired, as we were to retrace the same road in the afternoon; when the other end gave way and broke down, happily without doing serious damage.
A short drive brought us to Tautira, a large, very pretty village, where the men were playing at spear-throwing. This is the first place where we have seen any sort of game played. The admiral, according to his custom, inspected the schools, and pronounced a verdict not altogether encouraging on the work of a young priest, who was setting the children to such useful tasks as copying "mon âme est souillé de péchés! off a large black slate; they being almost as ignorant of French as he of Tahitian. The admiral discourages the teaching of French, especially to the girls, rightly judging that such knowledge will prove by no means to their moral weal.
We were, as usual, most hospitably entertained with all the village could give, of fish and fruit, flesh and fowl. Everywhere those excellent white crayfish, the varo, are our chief delicacy. Here and there pine-apples are produced, but they are very poor, probably uncultivated. The himènes at Tautira were exceedingly pretty, and we left that pleasant "world's end" with much regret. The carriage-road does not extend round the peninsula, so we had to return to the isthmus to start afresh. We reached Taravou in time for dinner, and found the roses beautiful as before.
Early this morning we were once more en route, and drove to the other side of the peninsula, which is, if possible, even lovelier than what we saw yesterday. Marau and the king had preceded us to the village of Vairao, where the ladies had employed the morning in preparing garlands of a white flower, like jessamine, with which they crowned us. This village is poor; so instead of receiving us in a fine district house, the people had erected very picturesque booths on three sides of a square. The chorus-singers were grouped on the grass in the centre, where were also heaped up the usual ceremonial offerings of fruit and pigs—apparently for show—as there is always an ample supply of food on the tables.
Here, in addition to the usual vegetables, yams, and taro, sweet-potatoes, bread-fruit, and faees roasted in wood-ashes, we had calabashes of sticky poi, which is a preparation of ripe bread-fruit, greatly in favour with the natives, and which in old times was the principal food of this island, as it still is in Hawaii. I do not think it was ever used in the isles further west, where the bread-fruit is a very inferior tree to what it is in this, its native home. Most of the poi which is consumed in Hawaii is made from taro, and is of a pinkish colour. Here taro is the luxury, bread-fruit the staff of life, so it alone is used. When eaten fresh with milk it tastes rather like gooseberry-fool; but the natives prefer it fermented, and consequently sour.
The pulpy fruit is first pounded with a stone pestle in a wooden bowl, till it attains the consistency of dough. It is then wrapped in leaves and baked in an earth-oven over red-hot stones. Finally, it is beaten up with water till it becomes a glutinous yellowish mass, indescribably sticky, and with a slightly acid flavour.
To the initiated there is always a malicious pleasure in watching the undignified efforts of a new hand at dipping into this dish; for of course there are no spoons or forks in the question; and a stranger, seeing the neatness with which an experienced hand feeds himself, is apt to imagine that it is all plain sailing, and so plunges recklessly into this most adhesive paste, probably with the result of lifting the whole calabash, instead of the mouthful he expected. The correct method is to dip the forefinger of the right hand in the bowl, and as you draw it out smoothly coated with poi, give it a series of rapid twirls to prevent its hanging in glutinous strings; then with a final flourish, to keep it from dripping, land the finger in the mouth, and draw it back quite free from the paste, and ready to repeat the process. Two or more persons generally eat out of the same bowl, in which case they have cocoa-nut shells of fresh water beside them in which to wash their finger before dipping again in the poi; but it really does not much matter, as the preparation is so very sticky that you must of necessity appropriate every particle you touch, so you and your neighbour are in no danger of exchanging atoms! as you would be, in sharing a bowl of well-chewed kava.
That beverage of the isles did not appear at this native feast; in fact I have never seen it in Tahiti, and suppose it must have died out before the superior attractions of orange-rum and similar decoctions. On the present occasion, cocoa-nuts were the only drink, with the exception of pure water. As regards the latter, I was much struck by an ingenious substitute for water-jars. At every supporting post of the booths was fastened an upright bamboo, perhaps twelve feet in length, and pierced from end to end, only the lowest joint being left intact. Here a spigot was introduced, and the bamboo being filled with water, supplied drink for all the thirsty multitude. As drinking-cups, the people here still use cocoa-nut cups, scraped very thin and polished by constant friction on a stone in water, till they become as light, and almost as transparent, as tortoise-shell. The himènes here were the prettiest we have yet heard, and you can understand that we are by this time quite connoisseurs in this peculiar music. The Upa-upa was danced with unusual zest, but was none the less ungraceful.
Another most exquisite drive brought us to Teahaupoo, where we wandered about, lost in admiration, while the king and the admiral were undergoing the usual official speeches. The feast this evening was rather dull, being spread along one side of a very long and dimly lighted table. Of course we always require artificial light for dinner, as, in the tropics, the sun sets all the year round at about six o'clock, rising at about the same hour in the morning. We often think enviously of your long summer twilight. But then, on the other hand, we have no short, dark, winter days. Again to-night the himène singing was unusually fascinating. It varies much, and the most charming glees are those which are most suggestive of musical chimes.
Queen Marau offered me quarters in the large native house awarded to her and Ariiaue. It consisted of one large room without divisions, containing several good beds, with the usual pretty bright quilts and mosquito-nets. We curtained off one end of the room for the king and an old chief, and they are now sleeping peacefully, as we should also be doing—so good-night.
Being a light sleeper, I was awakened long before dawn by hearing Ariiaue and his companion astir, and soon after 4 a.m. they started for Afaahiti, the king's own village. The rain was pouring in a pitiless, relentless fashion; and beat in beneath the wide eaves against the open walls of our bird-cage house. Still we would fain have stayed where we were, and reluctantly obeyed the order to be en voiture at seven o'clock, to return to the isthmus. The rain never ceased, and all the beauty which gladdened us yesterday was invisible. Only sheets of grey drifting cloud, and dripping trees, dripping carriages, horses, and umbrellas. We left Marau at Afaahiti, while we drove on to these now familiar quarters, where I have the luxury of a large, good room. Of course we all arrived soaked, and have spent the day in trying to get dry. I think most of the gentlemen have managed a few hours of sleep.
An early drive brought us to Hitiaa, the house of little Hinoi's mother, the pretty young widow of the Prince de Joinville. Everything here was very gracefully done, and the festival as purely native as possible. Here the severity of Court mourning was not mitigated, and all the women wore crowns of fibre dyed black, which looked very sombre.
Immediately after breakfast we started for Mahaena, preceded by a party of six or eight picturesque lancers, who had formed part of old Queen Pomare's body-guard. They added a pleasant feature to the beautiful scenery as they rode along the green glades, through the usual successions of glorious foliage;—groves of magnificent bread-fruit trees, indigenous to those isles; next a clump of noble mango-trees, recently imported, but now quite at home; then a group of tall palms, or a long avenue of gigantic bananas, their leaves, sometimes twelve feet long, meeting over our heads. Then came patches of sugar or Indian corn, and next a plantation of vanilla, trained to climb over closely planted tall coffee, or else over vermilion-bushes. Sometimes it is planted, without more ado, at the root of pruned guava-bushes. These grow wild over the whole country, loaded with large, excellent fruit, and, moreover, supply the whole fuel of the isles, and good food for cattle. They are all self-sown,—descendants of a few plants introduced as garden fruit-trees,—and now they have overrun the isles and are looked upon by the planters as a curse, because of the rapidity and tenacity with which they take possession of any patch of neglected land. Yet a plant which so generously yields food for man and beast, and abundant fuel, is surely not altogether evil! Amongst all this wealth of food-producing vegetation, I sometimes looked in vain for any trees that were merely ornamental; and literally there were only the yellow hybiscus, which yields the useful fibre, and the candle-nut, covered with clusters of white blossoms, somewhat resembling white lilac, and bearing nuts with oily kernels, whence the tree derives its name.
The method of manufacturing candles from candle-nuts is delightfully simple. First the nuts are lightly baked, to render their very hard shell more brittle; the kernels are thus obtained whole, and a hole being bored in each, about a dozen are strung together on the mid-rib of a palm-leaf, which acts as the wick, and the oily nuts, each the size of a walnut, burn slowly with a dim light and oppressive smell.
On our arrival here, we were met by a messenger from Papeete, announcing an outbreak of a serious form of influenza, from which the king's aunt died this morning. This is a great grief to the royal brothers, who at once started to attend her funeral. Ties of family affection appear to be very strong in Tahiti, and this sad news has cast a gloom on everything. It is very grievous for our hosts, who had made their preparations with great care, and were looking forward to this opportunity of testifying their loyalty.
The river here is lovely. Marau and I bathed together, and I spent the afternoon sketching. During the evening himènes, we all sat in pleasant groups on the shore, or strolled along to the mouth of the river. For our night-quarters, this large district house has been divided by temporary screens, charmingly decorated with quaintly knotted palm-leaves and tree-ferns. I share one of these divisions with the queen, the admiral and his son occupy the next, and all the other gentlemen have disposed of themselves at the further end.
Last night, for the first time, we were all devoured by fleas, and a chorus of aggravation arose from all sides of the pretty cheferie. Everything was beautifully clean, so we attribute the presence of these unwelcome intruders to the fact that the hay, which is always laid as a carpet on the wooden floor, must have been too old.
We all compared notes of distress over our morning coffee—then, as usual, forgot all save the beauty of the scenery as we drove along the shore to Tiarei, where a temporary avenue of faees, or wild banana, had been planted with infinite trouble and at a great sacrifice of fine fruit-bearing plants. The peculiarity of the faees is, that instead of carrying its huge cluster of fruit pendent, beneath its broad leaves, it carries it upright in the centre. The faees invariably grow in the most inaccessible ravines and crevices of the rock; so it must have been a troublesome task to carry these down, without injury to the large delicate leaves.
We were welcomed by a large family of chiefs, and specially by a kind old lady, who kissed us all on both cheeks, down to M. Hardouin, A.D.C., when Marau's untimely laughter stopped her proceeding to the remaining eighteen officers! Though the absence of the king must have made it rather flat for the chiefs, the official speeches were made to the admiral, and the himènes sung as usual.
Then followed a most lovely drive, the road cut along the face of basaltic cliffs, and here we are close to another very fine river, which of course implies pleasant bathing and sketching. This evening we had a delightful stroll along the shore, the wavelets breaking on a pebbly beach. At the last moment, the moon rose glorious from the sea—a vision of great beauty.
We are very comfortably housed to-night in the chief's own house. Marau and I occupy one end, and his family have the other.
Late last night we returned to headquarters, and I to this pleasant nest, very glad of the prospect of a few days' rest. Yesterday was a long day, for I was out sketching with the first ray of light, and worked till it was time to start for the Haapepe district, of which the king's brother, Terii Tapunui is chief. He is distressingly lame, but is a very good fellow, with a particularly nice wife, a cousin of the charming Moë. She is noted for her skill in making pretty hats. They received us at Point Venus, so called because Captain Cook thence observed the transit of Venus in 1769.
Pomare and Tamatoa rejoined the party after returning from their aunt's funeral; and the three brothers spent the afternoon together by themselves—a wise course, as Tamatoa had striven so hard to drown his grief, that he had attained a jocose-beatific condition, very annoying to the king, who all this time has been a model of sobriety, greatly to the delight of the admiral.
This quiet little village presents the usual anomaly of a very large Roman Catholic church without a congregation, standing close to the original congregational church. The latter is a large cool building, in which I gladly took refuge to escape from noise and heat; for several friends who had driven down from Papeete to meet us, were so delighted to find a smooth carpet, that they commenced dancing immediately after late breakfast, and kept it up merrily all the afternoon.
When the heat began to subside I found my way to the great lighthouse, where the French officials were most obliging, and did the honours of their lofty tower with all courtesy. From the summit there is a grand view of mountains, including Orofena, which is the highest point of Tahiti—height 7336 feet. At our feet lay the village, concealed by a sea of waving palms, only their crowns visible, and rippling like running water as the light breeze passed over them. It was a splendid sketching-point, and I held my ground till a party of the dancers came to summon me to the banquet.
Then followed as pretty a scene as I have ever witnessed. We had to drive twelve miles to Papeete; and as the nights are dark, and the moon was not due till towards midnight, we knew that torches would be required—but only expected the necessary number. The Tahitians had, however, resolved on a demonstration, to show their appreciation of the course adopted by the admiral, and their gratitude for his sympathy. So when we had toiled up a long steep hill, about three miles from Point Venus, we were met by a company of stalwart men carrying blazing torches of cocoa-palm leaves, about twelve feet long. These turned and preceded us, their numbers receiving continual reinforcements, some on horseback, some on foot, till they mustered fully a thousand, and the ruddy glare of the torches illumined the rich masses of foliage, gleaming on the glossy leaves of the bread-fruit, and the bright sword-like fronds of the palms, while the lurid smoke lent something of cloudy mystery to the whole. Add to this, the presence of all the inhabitants, who of course poured out from every bird-cage cottage along the road and joined the procession, adding their quota of mirth and chatter to the general hubbub. Of course with so many walkers we could only progress at a foot's pace, and nine miles of this at last became somewhat bewildering; it seemed as if we were moving in a strange dream. A party of native drummers added their very trying "music" to the general noise; but happily the band fell into the spirit of the thing, and though their afternoon's work fully entitled them to rest, they played at intervals all the way.
At the outskirts of the town there was a halt, and in obedience to municipal regulations every torch was extinguished, and we entered the ill-lighted town in almost complete darkness. It was a wise precaution, however, as the air was full of flying sparks, and a conflagration would make short work of the dry wooden houses. Happily the large crowd was quiet and orderly; and so far as I am aware, I myself am the only sufferer from that half-hour's darkness, during which my beloved green plaid was abstracted from the bundle in which I had placed it. I think I know the thief—at least I have the strongest reason to suspect a half-caste, in no way connected with Tahiti, save by residence. But I fear there is not the slightest hope of ever recovering it. It was a large green plaid, of "Black Watch" tartan, which has been my inseparable companion and delight for many a year, and in many a strange place. I have slept in it on the top of Adam's Peak, and in the wonderful jungle cities of Ceylon, and it has travelled to the remotest corners of Australasia and Polynesia, and many and varied are its associations with people and things.
"Oh, my plaid was dear to me!"
and deeply do I abhor the covetous thief who has robbed me, so infinitely beyond the value of a few fathoms of tartan;
"For we cannot buy with gold
The old associations."
This morning Narii Salmon took me on board the Seignelay to see my old friends and my old quarters. They welcomed me back most heartily, and seemed really glad that I had seen the isle to such advantage—but they themselves were all dull and sad. Time has as yet done nothing to heal their grief, and indeed the ship seems altogether changed, even externally, for she has been painted white, to match La Magicienne.
I returned with Narii to breakfast with his sister, Mrs Brander; there we were joined by the admiral, who came to make arrangements with her for the next part of the programme; for she is as sensible as she is handsome, which is saying much, and her opinions and suggestions carry great weight with every one.
Already preparations are being made for another grand expedition, for there are several lesser isles subject to the king of Tahiti; and next week the Seignelay is to convey the king and queen and their party to Moorea, the beautiful island which we passed on the morning of our arrival in Tahiti, and of which Mrs Brander is the high chiefess.
I hear that there is a chance of letters being despatched by some vessel, so I may as well close this. . . . Your loving sister.
- My soul is defiled with sin.
- Musa uranascopus.