A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 16

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Chez Rev. James Green, Papeete,
Sunday, 4th Nov.

Dearest Nell,—All the others have gone off to the Tahitian church. As I find, from long experience, that attending service in an unknown tongue tends to produce habits of the strictest inattention, I thought I might as well stay at home and have a talk with you. We returned from Moorea yesterday, and I am still very tired. This expedition has been very fatiguing, and somewhat bewildering, from the manner in which everything was hurried; there was really no time to enjoy anything; it was all a rush to get over the ground.

For some reason unknown, the admiral determined to accomplish the grand round in two days, which did not allow of a halt at half the districts. This was the more tantalising as the island is indescribably lovely, and I longed to linger at every point. The day of our start was equally hurried, and the people had received such very short notice, that they were quite unprepared for the royal visit, and somewhat disconcerted in consequence. And then the combination of mourning with ceremonial rejoicing was a very distressing element.

On Thursday morning one of the Seignelay boats came here to take me on board at 7 a.m., and soon afterwards the king and queen arrived, escorted by the admiral and many officers of La Magicienne. Mrs Brander and all her family party soon followed. But our wonted gaiety was altogether lacking, for there was a solemn presence in our midst, and we all knew that beneath the Union-jack, which was spread as a pall, lay the coffin containing the remains of one very dear to many in these isles. Her husband was buried on Moorea, near the spot where his daughter now lives; and now the two faithful workers have been laid side by side in this far country.

Two hours steaming brought us to Vaianae Bay, whence we rowed ashore to Afareaitu, a distance of about two miles. Thence the boats returned to the Seignelay, which proceeded to the other side of the isle to find good anchorage.

On landing, we were received by the head men, in very fine tiputas (the much-decorated upper garment of native cloth). These they presented to the admiral and the king. But our arrival was so premature, that the reception was on a small scale—the people not having had time to assemble. After breakfast I secured a rapid outline of the strange beautiful hills, then we had to hurry away, in excellent boats, the property of Tahitians.

As we rowed along inside the reef, each turn revealed new marvels of that most lovely coast, which combines the softest beauties of rich foliage with the most weird grandeur of mountain gloom. The island is by far the most wonderful I have ever seen. Just one confused mass of basaltic crags and pinnacles, lofty ridges, so narrow that here and there where some part has broken away you can see the sky through an opening like the eye of a needle. Nature seems to have here built up gigantic rock-fortresses, mighty bastions and towers which reach up into heaven; pyramids, before which those of Gizeh would appear as pigmies, and minarets such as the builders of the Kootub never dreamt of. It is as though some huge mountain of rock had been rent asunder, and its fragments left standing upright in stupendous splinters. Some one has unpleasantly compared these to asses' ears, and I am fain to confess that the description is good, so far as outline is concerned.

I had caught glimpses of some of these amazing stone needles and towers as we passed Moorea on the first morning, but then they only appeared mysteriously through the drifting vapours, which idealise and magnify the most commonplace crags. Now there were no mists, and the huge pinnacles stood out sharp and clear against a cloudless sky, while far below them the riven rocks lay seamed by narrow chasms—dark sunless ravines, moist with the spray of many waterfalls, and rich with all green things that love warm misty shade.

I believe that when reduced to figures, the mountains of Moorea are found to average only half the height of those in Tahiti, the latter rising to upwards of 7000 feet, while the highest peak of Moorea, Afareaitu, is only 3976 feet. But the strangely varied forms of the latter are so remarkable, that a few thousand feet more or less seem a matter of indifference.

I did long to crave a few moments' halt from time to time, to secure ever so slight an outline of some specially striking scene, but of course I dared not suggest it, as we were evidently bound to "make good time" (that crime in travelling, which so many mistake for a virtue). The result was, that we reached Haapiti at 2 p.m. Mrs Brander, who had hurried on at once to make her preparations, had counted on our not arriving till four at the earliest, so of course nothing was ready.

The admiral went to examine schools, and I lost no time in settling down to a large sketch of the beautiful and fairy-like scene—the grand mountain amphitheatre of stupendous crags and precipices, a middle distance of richest foliage, and in the foreground, on a lawn of greenest turf, the pretty temporary building of palm and bamboo, erected for the banquet. The interior was lined with tree-ferns and bunches of rosy oleander, and festooned with many hundred yards of deep fringe made of hybiscus fibre. The thatch was entirely composed of the long glossy fronds of birds'-nest fern,[1] which, being tough and leathery, make a good permanent thatch, and one which lasts much longer than banana-leaves, though, of course, it is more troublesome to arrange in the first instance. It seems too bad to sacrifice such an incredible number of these beautiful plants. The only consolation is, that they grow in places so inaccessible that no human eye ever beholds them, save that of the goat-like cragsman who explores the deep ravines in search of the wild faees, which constitute the principal article of food on these isles.

Shortly before sunset all the people of the district assembled, each with a piece of yellow native cloth thrown over their black dresses like a shawl, to symbolise joy in sorrow. They formed an immense procession, headed by Mrs Brander as high chiefess. She
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was dressed entirely in black, only relieved by a most becoming crown of glossy white arrowroot, with a plume of snowy reva-reva. Immediately after her followed the gentlemen of her family, wearing very beautiful tiputas of bread-fruit bark cloth, covered with ornaments and flowers made of arrowroot and bamboo fibre, and all fringed with the delicate reva-reva. They made an address and sang the himènes of welcome which should have greeted the royalties on their landing. Then the chiefs presented their beautiful garments to the principal persons present, and all the people laid their yellow scarves and pretty hats at their feet. One of the tiputas was intended for me, but as I sat apart to see the general picture, it was unfortunately given to some one else; but Mrs Brander reserved for me a most delicate hand-screen of the finest fibre.

Then followed a great dinner, admirable in every respect, the pretty booth being illuminated by a multitude of Chinese lanterns; and the himène singing, which was continued at intervals all the evening, was particularly good. The sleeping arrangements were less satisfactory, there having been no time to make preparations for so large a party; so my hostess had only reserved one tiny room for herself, two children, two native women, and me. It was a foreign house, with windows. These were tightly closed, and a bright lamp kept burning all night,—both circumstances fatal to all chance of sleep,—so I preferred a shake-down in the sitting-room. Unfortunately, my experience of the luxuries of Tahiti had induced me to travel without my own mosquito-net; and the attacks of these persistent foes, combined with the perpetual movement of locomotive women, incessantly opening the door at my head and admitting a stream of bright light, effectually banished all hope of sleep. It was a night of feverish unrest,—a bad preparation for the morrow.

Again came a hurried morning start in good native boats,—the coast, beautiful as that of yesterday. We had a strong wind and tide against us, and made slow progress. After a severe pull of three hours, we stopped at a point where the rowers landed to rest and get cocoa-nuts; but hordes of mosquitos attacked and routed us, even following us on our way. Finally we landed, and walked the last two miles to Papetoai, on Opunohu Bay, where the Seignelay anchored last night.

Mrs Simpson's body was brought ashore this morning, and as the people were all too much fussed to mourn their old friend and clerical mother (at least externally), the coffin was carried to the church by French sailors; and they and their officers were the only persons present, besides the immediate relations, at a sort of preliminary service held by M. Brun, the Protestant pastor.

Breakfast, chiefly consisting of omelets which had been cooked at 7 a.m., was not served till noon; and as I had only succeeded in securing a bit of biscuit before starting, I was so famished that one of the officers went to forage on my account, and returned in triumph with a yard of bread! This proved so satisfying, that, craving permission to escape from the formal meal, I returned on board with my old shipmates, and secured a careful drawing of the wonderfully lovely mountains ere the rest of the party came on board. One young sailor came to great grief in trying to climb a cocoa-nut tree—an operation which appears very easy to the expert islanders, but sorely puzzles a foreigner. This poor lad fell from a considerable height, breaking his arm and severely injuring his head. So the kind doctor had his hands full, and no time to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

We steamed round to Pao Pao, commonly known as Cook's Bay, which is also very fine. Here we left the steamer, and, taking to the boats, rowed four miles to Tiaia, which is a pretty village by the sea. On one side of it there is a splendid grove of glossy-leaved tamanu trees, and a few fine old iron-wood trees—the casuarina—all that now remains of what was once a very sacred grove surrounding the ancient marae. Now the Christian church occupies the site where formerly human sacrifices were offered to the cruel gods. At a distance of about two miles from this village there is a brackish lake—Lake Temae—about a mile in length. It contains good fish, and many wild-duck haunt its sedgy and very muddy shores. Under the impression that it was very much nearer, I joined the exploring party. We had to make a détour of
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some length, and found no beauty to compensate for a very fatiguing walk of upwards of four miles, which, combined with that of the morning, quite finished me. I could not even sit up for the evening himènes, which was a matter of real regret, as the singers here are considered the very best in the group. Several of the women have very fine falsetto voices.

To my great delight, in apportioning our quarters, M. Hardouin, A.D.C., awarded me a tiny house all to myself—the owners kept only the outer room; and when they went off to join the himènes they locked the door to keep their charge safe. Happily one of my friends on the Seignelay had lent me a mosquito-net, so I slept the blessed, dreamless sleep of the weary.

In the morning at 6 a.m., as I was dressing leisurely for 7 o'clock coffee, Queen Marau rushed in to say the admiral was all ready for a 6 o'clock start. Thereupon followed a horrid hurry-scurry to get ready, and a four miles' row back to the vessel. At 7.30 she was under way, and at 10 a.m. we were at anchor in Papeete harbour.

Altogether this has been a most tantalising expedition, an unsatisfactory hurrying over scenes of surpassing beauty. Mrs Brander says that if I will stay some time longer in Tahiti she will take me back there and let me pasture at leisure in that artists' paradise. Fain would I linger,—indeed all manner of delightful ploys are proposed, but all involve time, and I have promised to meet Lady Gordon at Christmas, either at Auckland or Sydney, according to what I hear at Honolulu, so I must not lose the chance of the first vessel to the Sandwich Isles.

Tuesday, 6th.

It has been decided that one of Mrs Brander's vessels, the Maramma (i.e., the Moon), is to start for Honolulu on Saturday, so that settles the time of my departure from Tahiti. It is also announced that on Thursday the Seignelay is to be sent off to the Marquesas, to convey a force of gendarmes to inquire into some recent outbreaks of cannibalism. Mrs Brander has been most kindly renewing her invitation to me to stay with her till the next trip of the Maramma to Honolulu—a matter of two months! It is most tempting, but I feel bound to go. At the band to-night, Mr Darsie, manager of the Maison Brandère, expressed his astonishment that I should lose such a chance of seeing the Marquesas and the Paumotus, adding that the manager of the business for those groups was going to take the trip, and would enable me to see everything to the greatest advantage, and the ship is to return here in a fortnight. Certainly it would be quite delightful, but what is the use of suggesting the impossible?

Wednesday, 7th.

Early this morning we went on board the Maramma to see the cabin which Mrs Brander has kindly reserved for me—the best in the ship. It made me sad to look at it and to think that it is to carry me away for ever from this supremely lovely South Sea paradise. All to-day we have had a succession of visits from my kind friends of the Seignelay, to urge my giving up Honolulu in favour of Les Marquises, or, if that could not be, to faire les adieux. At the very last came M. de Gironde, who is always my good genius, to try and prove that it was not too late to change my mind, and that his cabin was at my disposal as before. Surely there never was a ship full of such kind people. Of course it would be quite delightful to go and see another lot of beautiful isles; but after all, I suppose they are very much like these, and my brain already feels overcrowded with pictures, each lovelier than the last. So, for every reason, it seems best to stand true to my tryst, and be content with a run to the volcanoes, and then drop down to the comparatively commonplace scenes of Australia or New Zealand.

This has been quite a sad day of farewells. We dined with the Verniers and afterwards went to the admiral's reception—a very pretty and animated dance.

Thursday, 8th.

At nine this morning the Seignelay steamed close past our windows, and great was the farewell waving of hats and handkerchiefs. I grieve to part from the many kind companions of so many pleasant days (and of sad ones too); and I would fain be going on with the good ship now, for I sorely regret the approaching end of my travels in these parts.

To-night we dined at Mrs Brander's. The party included a large number of officers from the Magicienne. It was a farewell entertainment, as Mrs Brander's son Aleck and Mr Darsie both go to Honolulu in the Maramma (the latter en route to England). They too are going to see the volcanoes; but if they are rightly informed concerning the trips of the little Hawaiian steamer, I begin to have very grave doubts of the possibility of my visiting the southern isles at all, if I attempt to carry out my programme, even supposing we have a fair wind and quick passage to Honolulu, which is more than doubtful.

Friday, 9th.

A wretched sleepless night, worrying over plans. Difficulties always do exaggerate themselves so absurdly if one lies awake. Out at daybreak to get a sketch from the shore. It is all working against time, and my heap of unfinished drawings is a serious nightmare. I have been struggling to get several duplicate sketches finished for various friends, and I feel like a graphic barrel-organ—an unreasoning machine for the multiplication of drawings; and the ever-recurring thought arises, Why not stay and have the delight of working from nature, as the kind friends here advise, when after all it is more than probable that the Christmas tryst will fall through? But anyhow, I have missed the chance of Les Marquises, and it would seem too silly to change my mind now.

Mrs Brander came to-day to say good-bye, but added emphatically, "You're not gone yet, however!" There's no doubt that her invitation to stay on is quite bonâ fide; but for two months at least! What a visitation to inflict on any one!

Mrs Miller drove me to call on the Bishop of Axieri, Monseigneur Tepano Janssen, who is most kind and courteous. He showed us all over his grounds, which are literally a garden of acclimatisation, so numerous are the useful plants of other lands which he is endeavouring to introduce. It is greatly due to his care that the mangoes of Tahiti have been brought to such perfection. The conversation turned on many subjects of interest. Amongst other things, speaking of the effect of many mingled sounds, he told us of the deafening noise produced by the cries of sea-birds on some of the isles where he has touched, on one of which he witnessed a strange instance of combined action by myriads of sea-birds and herons; the former, diving simultaneously, produced a noise like a thunder-clap as they struck the water. The dignified herons profited by their neighbours' work, and waited on the shore ready to catch the startled fish as they fled affrighted from the divers.

This evening the admiral invited Mrs Miller, Madame Fayzeau, and myself, to dine on board La Magicienne. She is a very fine old fashioned-frigate, with vast accommodation, splendid broad decks of great length. The admiral has a large dining-room, and a sitting-room the size of an average drawing-room, with four large square windows opening into a gallery round the stern—a charming lounge in fine weather. Commandant Beïque has rooms equally pretty, on the same level, each with a large square window (I cannot call them ports). They are so high above the water that they scarcely ever have to be closed—a true boon in the tropics. I never saw so roomy a ship. With all her big guns, five hundred sailors, and thirty officers, there was no symptom of crowding. Amongst the officers are two belonging to the Peruvian navy, who have come to study the French system of navigation. One of these is remarkable for his diminutive size and extraordinary strength; the biggest men in the ship cannot wrestle with him, nor fight him (in sport).

After dinner we adjourned to Government House grounds to hear the band play, as usual; then all walked back by the shore to the British consulate, for a farewell evening, and finished it here in this sweet home-like nest. I do grieve that it should be the last evening, the more so as I am beginning to believe that what all my friends here agree in saying must be true—namely, that when I made my vague calculation of reaching Sydney for Christmas, it was on the principle of Jules Verne's 'Round the World in Eighty Days.' They say that to attempt fitting the Sandwich Isles volcanoes into the time is preposterous folly. I think they are right, but it is too late to change now. What further concerns me is the thought, which had not previously presented itself, that very likely, after all this pushing and scrambling, and spoiling everything by useless hurry, Lady Gordon may have given up the idea, and may stay quietly in Fiji till she is obliged to take the children direct to England,[2] and I may never know this till I reach Sydney.

Saturday, 10th.

Another weary night—perplexing and conflicting suggestions—the horrid feeling of being disloyal to a tryst, yet the certainty that nowhere else shall I find such beauty as I am leaving. Those unsketched dolomites of Moorea—those ferny ravines all unexplored—those glorious valleys of bread-fruit—the himènes that I shall never hear again! And every one agrees in telling me that the Hawaiian Isles are not to compare with these in beauty,—that the hills are comparatively shapeless, the foliage poor, the bread-fruit sickly and blighted, the cocoa-palms mere ghosts of their southern relations, and the mangoes miserable fruits, not worthy to bear the same name as the luscious mangoes of Tahiti. They tell me, too, that the people are much less attractive; that they have taken on so much blunt civilisation, that they have lost whatever native grace they may have once possessed. Even the same garment—the flowing sacque—is there worn so short and full that it is scarcely to be recognised, and instead of floating drapery it becomes a mere dress.[3]

Well, I must now begin my packing. There will be time enough for writing before we reach Honolulu.

Papeete, Saturday Afternoon.

Jubilate! Jubilate! The Maramma is to start in an hour, but will leave me to revel in South Sea loveliness till her next trip. This morning, just as I was putting the finishing-touches to my packing—I must confess very much contre-cœur, and quite in the vein of Eve's lamentation, "Must I leave thee, Paradise?"—up drove pretty Queen Marau and her handsome sister Moetia, who carried the position by assault,—vowed it was not too late to change a foolish plan; so leaving Moetia with her cousin Moë, Marau made me jump into her pony-phaeton and drove me straight off to Fautawa, where her sister Titaua, Mrs Brander, was giving a great entertainment to all her employés, previous to her son's departure for Honolulu. Then and there she made me recant all my previous protestations and refusals of her most hospitable invitations, and in two seconds all was settled. I am to be her guest till the Maramma returns, and is again sent to Honolulu.

Now that it is all settled, I feel quite satisfied and reprieved; so instead of a long letter written on board ship, I must despatch this as it is. We are just hurrying to the wharf to say good-bye to our friends, and then I look forward to a grand night's rest, for I am thoroughly tired.

I have been hoping against hope that a letter might reach me here, viâ New Zealand; but the schooner thence is about a month overdue, and it is feared she has gone on a reef. Good bye.—Your loving sister.

  1. Asplenium nidus.
  2. Which proved to be the exact state of the case.
  3. " All of which I found to be strictly true. Undoubtedly, the ideal Pacific Isles lie south of the equator.