A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 19

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The Red House, Papeete,
Saturday, December 1st.

We have had a very gay week, including several festivities on board the three French men-of-war now in harbour. On Saturday I was invited to dine on board Le Limier, with the Greens, Viennots, and Verniers. (In case your French fails you, I may remind you that a limier is a blood-hound; a fact which I only recollected on seeing canine heads on all the boats.) M. Puèch is a good friend of the French Protestant Mission, and his visit to Tahiti is a happy event for all its members. After a pleasant dinner, we sat on deck to hear the sailors sing, and then went off in small canoes for a nearer sight of the pêche à flambeaux, which was going on in every direction near the reef—the flashing torches and dark figures of the fishermen forming a most picturesque scene.

Another day we breakfasted on board Le Seignelay, and in the afternoon a large party assembled on La Magicienne to see the boat-races. A pretty sight, and seen from a beautiful and most luxurious ship.

On Wednesday, the admiral held his last reception at Government House, at which there was a very large attendance; and Mrs Brander had most mirthful dances here on Monday, and again last night. The latter was a farewell, and I fear that to many of the young folk it was really a very sorrowful one.

This morning we watched La Magicienne steam out of harbour on her way to Valparaiso. The admiral leaves a pleasant vice-governor in M. D'Oncieue de la Battye, who is happily allowed to retain the excellent band till the arrival of the new governor; when the Seignelay is to convey him and it to Valparaiso. So the Tahitians find some consolation in this arrangement.

Sunday Evening.

I think our Sundays would seem to you rather a curious medley, so I will give you a sketch of to-day from morning till evening. I was, as usual, awakened at 5 a.m. by the chattering of many voices, as the boats discharged their cargoes of fruit and rainbow-coloured fish beneath my windows. It was an exquisite cloudless morning, and I was seized with a sudden impulse to follow the crowd to the market, which hitherto I had only seen in its deserted afternoon aspect.

Passing by roads which are called streets, but are rather shady bowers of yellow hybiscus and bread-fruit trees, I entered the covered market-place, where were assembled as gay a throng as you could wish to see, many of them dressed in flowing robes of the very brightest colours; for the people here assembled are chiefly le peuple, whose days of ceremonial mourning for their good old queen are drawing to a close; so the long tresses of glossy black hair, hitherto so carefully hidden within their jaunty little sailor hats, are now again suffered to hang at full length in two silky plaits, and hair and hats are wreathed with bright fragrant flowers of double Cape jessamine, orange-blossom, scarlet hybiscus, or oleander. Many wear a delicate white jessamine star in the ear in place of an ear-ring. The people here are not so winsome as those in remoter districts. Too much contact with shipping and grog-shops has of course gone far to deteriorate them, and take off the freshness of life; but a South Sea crowd is always made up of groups pleasant to the eye; and a party of girls dressed in long graceful sacques of pale sea-green, or delicate pink, pure white, or bright crimson, chatting and laughing as they roll up minute fragments of tobacco in strips of pandanus or banana to supply the inevitable cigarette, is always attractive.

The men all wear pareos of Manchester cotton stuff, prepared expressly for these isles, and of the most wonderful patterns. Those most in favour are bright crimson with a large white pattern, perhaps groups of red crowns on circles of white, arranged on a scarlet ground, or else rows of white crowns, alternating with groups of stars. A dark-blue ground with circles and crosses in bright yellow, or scarlet with yellow anchors and circles, also find great favour; and though they certainly sound "loud" when thus described, they are singularly effective. It is wonderful what a variety of patterns can be produced, not one of which has ever been seen in England. With these the men wear white shirts, and sailor's hats, with bright-coloured silk handkerchiefs tied over them and knotted on the ear; or else a gay garland.

On entering the market, it struck me that many of the sellers must have taken up their quarters over-night, for their gay quilts and pillows lay near, as they sat on their mats snatching a hasty breakfast of fruit or raw fish.

The latter is always in favour. Little fish or big fish of certain sorts are swallowed with apparently the same delight as you might hail a basket of ripe cherries; in fact, a green banana-leaf full of skipping shrimps, is a dainty dish for any pretty maid, who crunches the wriggling creatures with her gleaming white teeth, or lets them hop down her throat with the greatest coolness.

The fish here offered for sale are of every sort and size and colour. Large silvery fish, flat fish; long narrow fish with prolonged snouts, excellent to eat; the au or needle-fish, with long sharp-pointed head; and gay scarlet and green and blue fishes of every colour of the rainbow. I have seen gaudy fish in many tropical seas, but nowhere such brilliancy as here. There are rock-fish of all sorts, bonito, good fresh-water salmon with white flesh, eels, mussels, turtle, clams, echini, prawns, red and white cray-fish, &c., &c. Sometimes the market has a fair supply of poultry, turkeys, fowls, pigeons, and wild duck,—generally a few live pigs, which are carried hanging from a pole and squealing pitifully. They are very good, and clean feeders, being allowed to wander at large, and find themselves in cocoa-nuts and bread-fruit. The enterprising Chinamen, as usual, improve the vegetable supply, especially in the matter of what I venture to call Christian potatoes, in opposition to the indigenous potato, alias yam.

Every one brings to the morning market whatever he happens to have for sale. Some days he has a large stock-in-trade, sometimes next to nothing. But, be it little or be it much, he divides it into two lots, and slings his parcels or baskets from a light bamboo-pole which rests across his shoulder, and, light as it is, often weighs more than the trifles suspended from it,—perhaps a few shrimps in a green leaf are slung from one end, and a lobster from the other, or, it may be, a tiny basket of new-laid eggs balanced by half-a-dozen silvery fishes.

But often the burden is so heavy that the pole bends with the weight—of perhaps two huge bunches of mountain bananas—and you think how that poor fellow's shoulder must have ached as he carried his spoil down the steep mountain-path from the cleft in the rugged rock where the faees had contrived to take root. These resemble bunches of gigantic golden plums. As a bit of colour they are glorious, but as a vegetable I cannot learn to like them,—which is perhaps as well, as the native proverb says that the foreigner who does appreciate faees, can never stay away from Tahiti.

As you enter the cool shady market you see hundreds of those golden clusters hanging from ropes stretched across the building, and great bunches of mangoes and oranges. These last lie heaped in baskets, among cool green leaves. Sometimes a whole laden bough has been recklessly cut off. Pine-apples, bread-fruit, cocoa-nuts, all are there, and baskets of scarlet tomatoes, suggestive of cool salads.

But tempting above all are the luscious mangoes, whose thin skins are ready to burst at a touch, and yield their treasure of delight to thirsting lips. Purple, or golden, or pale yellow, long-shaped or egg-shaped, I know not which to prefer; each in turn seems more delicious than any other, and the only difficulty is to stop feasting before the basket is empty! If Tahiti owns no other debt of gratitude to France, she at least has to thank a French governor for this excellent fruit, which is now so thoroughly acclimatised, that it has attained a perfection rarely equalled in any other country, and, moreover, grows so luxuriantly and bears fruit so abundantly, as to form an important item in the food of the people.

Returning from the market to a pleasant early breakfast on the cool verandah, I rested in luxurious quiet till the bells of the Roman church close by, summoned the faithful to the nine o'clock service, which I generally attend, in preference to walking in the heat to the large native Congregational church—"le temple Protestant"—where the long service, in a tongue to me unknown, is a weariness of flesh and spirit. Moreover, it lacks the picturesque element which was to me so attractive in the simple Fijian churches, where soft mats are the only furnishings required. Here the congregation are penned in hideous pews, which make it difficult, if not impossible, to kneel—a natural attitude of worship, which, in the early days of Tahitian Christianity, was as common as it now is in Fiji, but from which the modern Tahitians refrain in church, as savouring of Romish ritual!

At the Catholic church, the bishop preaches half in French, half in Tahitian, that all his hearers may carry away some message in their own tongue; and the singing by the French Sisters and their school-children is always sweet and harmonious. I cannot say the congregation is large—merely a small handful of natives; such of the French as are compelled to be present at all, having already been in official attendance at the eight o'clock military Mass, which is to me a very distasteful form of worship. I think that good Père Collet looks on me as rather a hopeful convert; but I tell him I only appear as the representative of my naval friends, who all consider church-going in any form as altogether unnecessary, neither officers nor sailors ever attending service since our arrival here.

After church, we went to breakfast on board Le Seignelay, and then to see Queen Marau, whom we escorted to the Government House gardens, where we were joined by several friends. The great attractions there are two newly arrived Russian bears, passengers by Le Limier—nice brown beasts, and very tame.

We returned here just in time for the family dinner, from which, as usual, Mrs Brander and I made our way to the evening service at the little Congregational chapel, at which only a tiny handful of the foreign residents assemble. All the members of the Protestant mission officiate by turns, in French or English; and this evening M. Vernier conducted the service in admirable English. But a strong counter-attraction is offered by the pleasant gardens, where the band always reserves its most attractive programme for Sunday night; and we catch tempting snatches of lovely operatic airs as we walk homeward by the hybiscus-shaded lanes.

Fautawa Valley, Thursday, 6th Dec.

Last Monday the whole party moved out from Papeete to this lovely country-home. It is a delightful bungalow, built by Mr Brander—a cool one-storeyed house, with wide shady verandahs; a pleasant garden, bright with summer flowers; masses of cool shade; and a clear, beautiful river, which affords a dozen delightful bathing-places of varied depth, so that every one can select a spot according to his own heart's desire. All the family and their friends can swim like fishes, so of course they prefer the deep pools, and have a favourite spot just below the house, where they disport themselves joyously at all hours of the day; and the first hospitable offer made to callers, is that of a pareo and towels, that they may at once enjoy this most refreshing luxury.

I, being a foolish non-swimmer, and moreover somewhat ungregarious, have discovered a bathing paradise for myself some way further up the stream, where the interlacing boughs of cool blue-grey hybiscus foliage form an immense arbour—a dressing-room of leafy shade, through which the gurgling waters flow gently, with rippling, liquid, most musical tones—the voice of hidden streams. Here a rivulet leaves the main river, and its sparkling waters play over a thick velvety carpet of the softest, greenest mosses, forming the most delightful couch you can imagine; while from the leafy canopy overhead drop pale lemon-coloured blossoms, which float idly down the stream; and from the wild guava bushes I can pluck any number of ripe guavas, or, to be still more luxurious, I may gather luscious mangoes on my way from the house. Can you wonder that so fascinating a bower is not only my first attraction at early dawn, but a favourite retreat at all hours? Sometimes I end the evening with a moonlight bathe, but am inclined to think that this is imprudent, as it is always followed by a feeling of chill, though the water and air both feel warm and delicious.

My hostess has presented me with a couple of sacques like those worn by all Tahitian ladies. They are the perfection of dress in this climate, being so delightfully cool. They are literally flowing garments, for they only touch you at the shoulders, and thence fall in long loose folds. So when the first ray of light gilds the high mountains in which this lovely valley lies embosomed, I slip on one of those simple dresses, and start barefoot across the dewy lawn and by the grassy paths that lead to the stream. Going barefoot is only a preliminary stage of bathing, for the grass is saturated with moisture, and an early walk across a field is about equivalent to walking knee-deep through a river.

Curiously enough, it is to this heavy night-dew that the royal family of Tahiti owe their name of Pomare, which literally means "night cough." About four generations back the king chanced to be sleeping on the mountains and exposed to the penetrating dew which brought on a troublesome cough. His followers spoke of the po mare, and the sound of the words pleased the royal ear; and thenceforth the king adopted this euphonious but singular surname, which has since been borne by each crowned head.

This very odd custom of adopting a name to commemorate some simple event, was common to a good many of the isles. Mr Gill mentions such names as "Lost son," adopted by the king of Mangaia when his son had been stolen; a title retained long after the lad had been restored. Another man took the name of "Deal-coffin," because a relation had been buried in a sailor's chest. One chief desired to be always called "Press me," because those words had been uttered by a dying grandchild when in pain; and another was called "Dim-sight," because his grandfather suffered from weak eyes.

This pleasant country-home is about three miles from Papeete, and various carriages are ready after early breakfast to convey the gentlemen to town, whence some return to late breakfast, others not till dinner-time. But all day long, people come and go on divers errands of business or pleasure; and the drive is so pretty as to be in itself quite an enjoyment. In short, life here is altogether easy and luxurious, combined with most captivating simplicity.

The already large family party has been increased by the arrival of a third big brother, Ariipaea, who has been for some time living on another of the islands. Mrs Salmon and the pretty young sisters, and several friends, are also staying here, a most loving "family-pie." To Narii this happy valley has an additional charm, for it is also the home of a certain charming "Mademoiselle Cécile," whom he hopes ere long to include in the family circle.

Chez the Rev James Green, Papeete,
Friday Evening.

This morning early, Ariipaea drove me here, where it had been arranged that I should meet M. Brun, the pasteur of Moorea, and accompany him to his beautiful isle. We were to have taken passage in one of a small fleet of Mooroa boats, which arrived here some days ago in order to build a district house, which shall henceforth be the regular headquarters of all Mooreans who have occasion to visit Papeete. The house was finished this morning, and the event was notified by a most deafening beating of native drums, after which all the boats set sail, very sensibly objecting to lose the fair breeze by any delay. M. Brun arrived in time to see them flying before the wind, like a flight of white butterflies.

I solaced myself by commencing a careful study of a noble bread-fruit tree, overshadowing Queen Moë's house, when suddenly a cry was raised that an English man-of-war was signalled. Great was the excitement that prevailed, as it is fully four years since the British ensign was last seen in this harbour, and there was a general chorus of disappointment when it was found that the visitor was only a small sloop, H.M.S. Daring; a disappointment, however, which was followed by great rejoicing, when it became known that she was the forerunner of H.M.S. Shah, Admiral de Horsey's flag-ship, which is to arrive here in a few days. Already the small society of the place is in a ferment at the prospect of so important a visitor; and the arrival of about fifty English officers will compensate for the departure of the French flag-ship. So all manner of hospitalities are already under discussion, as we gathered from the general conversation at the band this evening.

I shall leave this letter to go by H.M.S. Daring, in case she sails before I return from Moorea; so shall bid you good-bye for the present.