A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 3

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On Board Le Seignelay,
Wednesday, 12th September 1877.

Here I am once more safely ensconced in my favourite niche, which is the carriage of a big gun. Filled with red cushions, it makes a capital sofa, and is a cosy, quiet corner, and a capital point of observation, whence, without being in the way, I can look down on the various manœuvres on deck—parades, gun-practice, fire-parade, and so forth. We embarked this morning early, the four Sisters, by special sanction of the bishop, coming to see the last of me, and to breakfast with M. Aube;—an outrageous piece of dissipation, they said, but almost like once again setting foot in France. Four of the priests likewise escorted the bishop, and we had an exceedingly cheerful ecclesiastical breakfast-party, after which came a sorrowful parting, and then we sailed away from Tonga, taking with us the Père Padel, a fine old Bréton Father.

We are now passing through the Happai group, and hope tonight to catch a glimpse of the volcano of Tofua, or, as it is also called by the natives, Coe afi a Devolo (the Devil's fire). It is a perfect volcanic cone 2500 feet in height, densely wooded to the edge of the crater. Strange to say, though the isle simply consists of this one active volcano, there is said to be a lake on the summit of the mountain. It is not stated to be a geyser; but the Tongans who visit it bring back small black pebbles, which they strew on the graves of their dead.

The Happai group consists of about forty small isles, some purely volcanic, and others, as usual, combining coral on a volcanic foundation. About twenty of these are inhabited.

Neiafu, Vavau, Thursday Evening.

The volcano proved to be quiescent. Not even a curl of luminous smoke betrayed its character. The sea, however, made amends by the brilliancy of its phosphoric lights. It was a dead calm, and from beneath the surface shone a soft mellow glow, caused, I am told, by vast shoals of living creatures, as though the mermaids were holding revel beneath the waves, and had summoned all their luminous subjects to join in the dance. I know few things in nature more fascinating than this lovely fairy-like illumination. Its tremulous glow and occasional brilliant shooting flashes are to me always suggestive of our own northern lights—a sort of marine aurora.

Our course this morning was very pretty, steaming for many miles through narrow and intricate passages between the richly wooded headlands of Vavau, the great island, and many outlying islets. Finally, we anchored in what seemed like a quiet land-locked lake, at the village of Neiafu.

The bishop went ashore at once, and was reverently welcomed by two priests, one of whom, Père Bréton, has been here for about thirty years, living a life so ascetic as to amaze even his brethren, so completely does mind appear to have triumphed over matter. We sinners all agree that having each been intrusted with the care of an excellent animal, we are only doing our duty by feeding and otherwise caring for it to the best of our ability. So the ascetic example is one which we reverence, but have no intention of following, cold water and yam, day after day, being truly uninviting. But the old man has not forgotten how to be genial and kind to others, and is a general favourite.

The Roman Catholic flock here is small, as is also the church, which, however, is very neat. The Wesleyan Mission flourishes here, as it does throughout these Friendly Isles. In the three groups—namely, Tonga, Happai, and Vavau, it has 125 chapels, with an average attendance of 19,000 persons, of whom 8000 are church members. Four white missionaries superintend the work of 13 native ministers, upwards of 100 schoolmasters, and above 150 local preachers. At the Tubou Theological College—so named in honour of King George Tubou—there are about 100 students preparing for work as teachers or pastors.

I landed with M. Pinart, and a half-caste Samoan woman, who could talk some English, acted as our interpreter with the widow of the late "governor," a large comely woman, who invited us to her cool Tongan house, where friendly, pleasant-looking girls peeled delicious oranges faster than we could eat them. This whole village and district is one orange-grove; every house is embowered in large orange-trees—the earth is strewn with their fruit, the air fragrant. What an enchanting change after Tonga, where there are no orange-trees, and where a sense of stiffness and over-regulation seemed to pervade life!

The present "governor" is a fine tall young chief, rejoicing in the name of Wellington. He is acting for his father, Unga, King George's illegitimate son, whom he has declared heir to the throne, but who is at present in very bad health. The young chief seems inclined to hold the reins firmly and well. But at present the Vavau chiefs are in some disgrace with King George, as they are suspected of plotting against Unga, in favour of Maafu.[1]

Having eaten oranges to our hearts' content, we continued our walk to the Wesleyan Mission, and on our way thither met the Rev.—— Fox on his way to the ship, to see if we had a doctor on board. The latter having already gone ashore, we returned together to the house—a quiet pleasant home, but for the present saddened by the serious illness of the young wife, who, a few weeks ago, gave birth to her first child. As Vavau can furnish neither nurse nor doctor, the wife of the missionary in Happai had, at great personal inconvenience, come thence in an open canoe to officiate on the occasion. She had, however, been compelled to return soon afterwards to her own nurslings, leaving the young mother and her baby in charge of native women. A very slow recovery, accompanied with some unfavourable symptoms, had produced such depression and alarm, that just before our arrival, the poor husband had actually been making arrangements for his wife's return to Sydney for proper medical care. But, to get there, involved, in the first instance, a journey of about 200 miles in an open canoe to reach Tonga, whence she would have to proceed alone, in a wretched little sailing vessel, on a voyage of upwards of 2000 miles (as the crow flies)—a serious undertaking for a woman in robust health, but a terrible prospect for an invalid with a young baby.

Happily the timely arrival of the Seignelay dispelled this nightmare. M. Thoulon, the good kind doctor (himself père de famille), at once vetoed the rash arrangement, and his well-applied wisdom, and kind encouraging words, have already restored heart to the dispirited young wife; while a congenial talk with M. Pinart on the subject of Polynesian dialects and races, has helped to cheer the husband, who, later, took us to see his schools, pleasantly situated on a wooded hill, commanding a lovely view of the land-locked harbour. Then strolling back through the orange-groves, we returned on board, where I am now writing. The captain and several of the officers have gone off duck-shooting, and expect good sport.

Saturday Evening.

Yesterday morning, after a very early breakfast, I went ashore at 6.30 with M. Pinart and Dr Thoulon. Mr Fox was waiting at the pier, and returned with us to the mission-house, where we found the patient already on the mend. I acted the part of interpreter for the doctor, who was happily able to supply, as well as prescribe, all needful remedies and tonics. So when we returned this afternoon to say good-bye, the young mother looked like a different creature—so bright and happy. Truly a blessed skill is that of the kindly leech!

The previous evening Mr Fox had undertaken to borrow some horses, and escort us to the summit of "The Pudding," a wooded hill, commanding a splendid map-like view of the strangely intersected land and water on every side of us. The isles lie so close, one to the other, that we could scarcely believe we were looking on the ocean, and not rather on a network of clear calm lakes and rivers. All the isles appear to be densely wooded, but at intervals along the shore we could distinguish villages nestling among the trees. One small island has recently been ceded to the Germans as a coaling station, and there seems some reason for anxiety lest this small foothold should be taken further advantage of.

Our ride in the early morning was exceedingly pleasant. I had insured my own comfort by bringing my side-saddle ashore. By some mistake we found that the stirrup had been left in Fiji; but happily, on such a ship as this, to want a thing is to have it, and I hear that a new stirrup and strap are to be ready for me ere we reach Samoa. On the summit of the hill we found breakfast all
A Lady's Cruise-Coral Cave.png


ready, a party of natives from the mission having made an early start with tea, yams, ham and eggs—all of which had been cooked gipsy -fashion. To this foundation we added the contents of a hamper, which the thoughtful captain had directed his maître d’hôtel to send with us. So we had a royal feast, and then I settled down to do a bird's-eye sketch of the strange world out-spread below, while gentle and rather pretty brown girls, with sienna hair, sat by, peeling oranges by the dozen, with which they fed us all incessantly.

It is the part of true hospitality to peel oranges for a guest, as their thick green skins contain so much essential oil, that the mere act of removing them makes the hands very oily and uncomfortable. Woe betide the rash and thirsty stranger who puts the green fruit to his lips to suck it, as he might a golden orange in Europe. For many hours the burning pain of almost blistered lips will remind him of his folly.

Returning to the village, we found a large ten-oared boat waiting for us, the captain having most kindly placed it at our disposal, to enable us to explore the coast. Mr Fox guided us to a truly exquisite cave, about five miles distant. Never before, in all my wanderings, had my eyes been gladdened by such an ideal fairy grot. We rowed along the face of beautiful crags, which we had passed on the previous day without a suspicion of the wonderful hiding-place within them. Suddenly we steered right into a narrow opening, and found ourselves in a great vaulted cavern like a grand cathedral—a coral cave, with huge white stalactites hanging in clusters from the roof, and forming a perfect gallery along one side, from which we could almost fancy that white-veiled nuns were looking down on us.

The great outer cave is paved with lapis-lazuli, at least with water of the purest ultra-marine, which was reflected in rippling shimmers of blue and green on the white marble roof. For the sun was lowering, and shone in glory through the western arch-way, lighting up the mysterious depths of a great inner cavern, which otherwise receives but one ray of light from a small opening far overhead, through which we saw blue sky and green leaves. No scene-painter could have devised so romantic a picture for any fairy pantomime. The French sailors were ecstatic in their delight. They collected piles of old cocoa-nut fibre and dry palm-leaves and kindled bright blazing fires, whose ruddy light glowed on the dark crevices, which even the setting sun could not reach, and blended with the blue and green reflected lights, and both played on the white coral walls, and the white boat, and white figures—(for of course, in the tropics, the sailors all wear their white suits). Soon these active lads contrived to reach the gallery, and glided behind the stalactite pillars, making the illusion of the nuns' gallery still more perfect. Altogether it was a scene of dream-like loveliness.

All this coast is cavernous, and most tempting to explore. Very near my fairy cave lies the one described by Byron, in "The Island," which can only be reached by diving—

"A spacious cave
Whose only portal is the keyless wave
(A hollow archway by the sun unseen
Save through the billow's glassy veil of green)."

A huge rock, about 60 feet high, rises from the sea, with nothing to indicate that it is hollow; but at a considerable depth beneath low-water mark, there is an opening in the rock through which expert divers can enter, and find themselves in a cave about 40 feet wide and 40 in height—the roof forming rude Gothic arches of very rich and varied colour, and the whole incrusted with stalactites. The clear green water forms the crystal pavement, but two lesser caves, branching off on either side, afford a dry resting-place to such as here seek a temporary refuge. The place is quite unique in its surpassing loveliness; and the brilliant phosphoric lights which gleam with every movement of the water, and which are reflected in pale tremulous rays, that seem to trickle from the stalactites and lose themselves among the high arches, give to the whole a weird ghostly effect, quite realising all one's fancies of a spirit-world.

This home of the mermaids was first discovered by a young Tongan, who was diving in pursuit of a wounded turtle. Filled with wonder and delight, he lingered a few moments in admiration, then, recollecting how valuable such a hiding-place might prove in days of ceaseless intertribal war, he determined to keep his own counsel. So when he returned to the surface he held his peace, and all his companions were filled with wonder and admiration at the length of time he could remain under water.

Not very long after this, his family incurred the anger of the great chief of Vavau, and one and all were disgraced, and in continual danger of their lives. But the chief had a beautiful daughter, who loved this bold young islesman, and though under any circumstances he was of too lowly birth to dare to claim her openly in marriage, he persuaded her to forsake her father's house and come to that which he had prepared for her in the romantic grotto.

Here she remained hidden for several months, only venturing to swim to the upper world in the starlight, and ever on the alert to dive to her hiding-place on the slightest alarm. Of course her simple bathing dress of cocoa-nut oil and garlands did not suffer much from salt water; or if it did, trails of sea-weed quickly supplied fresh clothing. Her love brought constant supplies of fruit, to add to the fish which she herself provided: and so the happy weeks flew by, till at last the companions of the young man began to wonder why he left them so often, to go away all by himself, and especially they marvelled that he invariably returned with wet hair—(for the Tongans have the same aversion as the Fijians to wetting their hair, and rarely do so without good cause). So at length they tracked him, and saw that when his canoe reached the spot where he had stayed so long under water in pursuit of the turtle, he again plunged into the green depths, and there remained. They waited till he had returned to the land, suspecting no danger. Then they dived beside the great rock-mass, which seemed so solid, though it was but the crust of a huge bubble—and soon they too discovered the opening, through which they swam, and rising to the surface beheld the beautiful daughter of the chief, who had been mourned as one dead. So they carried her back to her indignant father—but what became of her hapless lover history does not record. Doubtless he was offered in sacrifice to the gods of Vavau.

We peered down through the crystal waters to see whether we could discern the entrance to the lover's cave, but failed to do so. Except at very low tide, it is difficult for average swimmers to dive so low. We only heard of two Englishmen who had succeeded. One was the early traveller, Mariner, who was present at a kava-drinking party of the chiefs in this cool grot; the other was the captain of an English man-of-war, who, in passing through the low rock archway, injured his back so seriously, that the people of Vavau believed him to have died in consequence.[2] It appears that the passage into the cave bristles with sharp projecting points, and it is exceedingly difficult to avoid striking against them. A native having dived to the entrance then turns on his back, and uses his hands as buffers to keep himself off the rocky roof.

Our row back to Neiafu was most lovely—sea, isles, and sky, vegetation and cliffs, all glorified in the light of the setting sun. As we were returning to shore, to land Mr Fox, Captain Aube hailed us, and bade us invite him to dinner with him. I thought this very courteous, as of course, on such an essentially Roman Catholic mission as this, there is just a little natural feeling that it may not be discreet to show too much honour to the Protestant minister, who, however, met with a most cordial reception, and we had a very pleasant evening.

This morning I was invited to accompany a party who started at daybreak to shoot wild duck on a pretty lake at some distance; but as I had the option of returning to the grotto, I chose the latter. So the captain again lent me the ten-oared boat, and we made another pleasant party to the beautiful cave: but it lost much of its beauty by being seen in the cold shadow of early morning, instead of being illumined by the level rays of the evening sun. We repeated the palm-leaf bonfires, but felt that we were not exhibiting our discovery to the best advantage. However, I got a sketch, which has the one merit of being totally unlike anything else I ever attempted.

We returned too late for breakfast in the captain's cabin, so had a cheery little party in the ward-room, then went ashore to say-good-bye to our friends, and carry away last impressions of the fragrant orange-groves of Vavau. Then the bishop and the Fathers returned on board, and we sailed away from the Friendly Isles.

  1. A great Tongan chief, settled in Fiji, who, up to the time of annexation, contested with Thakombau for the supremacy. I have just received news of his death.
  2. Since my return to England, I have heard the statement corroborated.