A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 23
THE ATOLL GROUP OF TETIAROA.
A glad Christmas to you all, dear people! Would that some good fairy could lend me a wishing-cap, that I might look in by turns on each home gathering in the various corners of England and Scotland. These marked anniversaries are always trying days, which awaken longings for the bodily presence of the dear kith and kin in the far country. But I confess I would rather that the said wishing-cap could bring all of you here, away from the bitter frosts and snows, to this paradise of sweet sunlight—and (selfish as it sounds when expressed in words) away from constant sight of the shivering ill-clad and half-starved people, whose deep-seated poverty you can in no wise alleviate,—to these isles, where want, at least, never appears prominently.
The whole family party of brothers and sisters, mother, aunts, cousins, and feudal retainers, moved out here again immediately after the departure of the big ship, and we have resumed the pleasant existence of delicious early bathes, and long idle days beneath the green shade by the lovely river.
I am sitting now in my favourite bower of dark hybiscus with lemon-coloured blossoms, which overarches the sparkling rivulet, as it branches from the main stream—an enchanting spot. I have just been reading the old Christmas service, which brings back many a vision of langsyne. There was a grand midnight Mass last night at the Catholic church, and of course service this morning, but none at the Protestant church, I believe.
Now I must go in to breakfast, alias luncheon, as a number of friends are expected. This evening one of the neighbours gives a large dance, to which, of course, we all go. Even non-dancers find such ploys attractive when they involve a pleasant evening drive in an open carriage, and no hot crowded rooms.
I have had another small cruise in the Seignelay, which was ordered to the isles of Tetiaroa, distant about twenty-four miles, thence to bring back the king, who went there last week in an open boat.
It was arranged that I should sleep at the Red House, and go on board with Queen Marau at daybreak. It proved to be rather a stormy morning, with a good deal of sea on; the sunrise colouring was very striking,—the mountains shrouded in heavy gloom, dark storm-clouds revealing the edge of their silvery lining, and a luminous prismatic halo playing all round the sun. Then the cloud—masses dispersed; dainty pink cloudlets floated on a sky which graduated from a pale-lemon hue to the colour of a thrush's egg, so that the whole colouring suggested broken rainbow lights, changing incessantly for half an hour.
Tetiaroa is a cluster of five low coral-isles, arranged in a circle, connected by coral-reef, thus almost forming an atoll. The isles are quite flat, nowhere rising more than four feet above the water. By nature barren, they have been artificially rendered fertile by the constant importation of vegetable mould from Tahiti; so now each isle is a dense grove of cocoa-palms, whose roots are washed by the salt spray.
Tetiaroa is to Papeete as Brighton is to London, a favourite bathing-place, where the Tahitians betake themselves to recruit their languid energies by a course of strong brine, though Tahiti appears to me too healthy to require any sanatorium. It is, however, worthy of note, that statistics go to prove that, as a rule, all the low coral-formations are healthy, whereas the inhabitants of high volcanic isles are frequently subject to fever and ague.
Though an imperfect atoll, this cluster was specially interesting to me, as a type of the eighty isles which form the Paumotus. Judging from this sample, I am satisfied that there is little to be seen from the deck of a ship. Could we ascend in a balloon, we should look down on a lagoon of shallow, very bright-green water, encircled by five palm-clad isles, connected by bands of rainbow-tinted reef,—say a garland of green roses and tri-colour ribbon. Could our balloon float above the Paumotu group, eighty such garlands would be seen scattered on the deep-blue ocean, each encircled by an outer belt of submarine prismatic colour, edged with white breakers, marking where lies the barrier-reef.
At Tetiaroa, the only opening in the reef is so narrow as barely to admit a canoe. We had, however, fully intended to land, but the surf was so rough that we had to give up the idea, much to my regret, especially as the day was devoted to heavy gun practice, which of course involves ear-splitting noise and smoke. However, I can stand fire pretty well, so took up a favourable position beside one of the cannons, and received instructions in artillery practice. But I confess I was not sorry when, after the fiftieth shot, the look-out man (who sat aloft like the sweet little cherub) announced the approach of the king, and presently we discerned a great crowd of natives wading across the reef, and dragging his canoe. Ship-boats put out to meet him; and though embarkation in such surf was no easy matter, it was safely accomplished, and a few minutes later the Seignelay received, not his majesty alone, but also a large number of pigs, and heaps of cocoa-nuts, presented to the lord of the isles, as parting gifts from loving subjects.
It was late ere we landed at Papeete, so I again slept at the Red House, where one of the Seignelay boats called for me at daybreak, and landed me at the beautiful avenue of Fautawa, where I had a most enjoyable morning of quiet sketching, till Mrs Brander sent her pony-carriage to bring me home to the noonday breakfast.
Now the young folk are preparing for a midnight frolic. They intend to have a very merry dance at a neighbour's house; but as it is to be impromptu, and the hosts are not supposed to prepare any supper, each gentleman intends to carry a basket, ostensibly of fruit and flowers, beneath which lie concealed sundry bottles of champagne, wherewith to drink the New Year in. The girls are busy weaving garlands, that all may be flower-crowned to-night.
Mrs Brander and her mother alone represent the more thoughtful element, and go to Papeete to attend a great native midnight service. I am too tired to do either, so can only say to you, as to the Old Year, "Good-night! Good-night!"