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Tahiti Visit - A Short History - In The Strange South Seas

Like an idle messenger-boy, Fate takes a long while about her rounds, but she will get through with them and deliver all her parcels, if you give her time enough.

She has so much business that she confuses orders very often, and you are never sure of getting what you sent for. Still, you will certainly get something, if you wait, and it may even be the thing you demanded. The morning she called at my door, with a very full basket, she had already been to my neighbours, and given them, in a big assortment of goods - a failure on the Stock Exchange, a hunting accident, and a broken engagement. What they had ordered was a seat in Parliament and a winter at Monte Carlo, with anything good that might come in in the way of new-laid motor-cars. But Fate was, as usual, in a hurry, and she never changes any goods, once delivered. So they had to take them in. I had given up expecting her when her knock came to my door, because my order had been sent in some years ago, and so far had remained unacknowledged. But she fairly emptied her basket into my hands, once she was admitted.

"Goods all right, and none the worse for keeping; couldn't find time to see to you before. I've been so busy attending to an order from Japan for a new army and a gross of assorted victories," she panted. "Had to serve the Czar of Russia with a lot of old defeats I've had lying by since the Crimea, instead of the new empire he sent for; and can't get time to fill more than half the German Emperor's order for fireworks. You private people are lucky to get anything at all. Count the goods please - one journey round the world, two-and-a-half years of mixed adventures, a hundred South Sea Islands, threescore new friends first quality, one large package luck. that's all. I think - sign the book, and let me go; I've got seven attacks of appendicitis, a foreclosed mortgaged two law-suits, and a divorce, to deliver in this square before lunch."

So like the fairy tales, "it all came true," and one bright winter afternoon a Cunard liner bore me away from the streets and shops and drab-coloured, huddled houses of Liverpool, down the muddy Mersey - off round the world.

There were thousands of people on the quay, come to see the famous boat away, for it was Saturday afternoon, and the town took holiday. They had a few hours of freedom before them - then, the airless office room, the stuffy shop, the ledger and the copying-press, and the clattering typewriter, the grim window giving on the dark wet street, for six long days again. Next year, and the year after, just the office, the frowsy lodging, the tram car, the pen in the strong young fingers, the desk to stoop the broad young shoulders, the life foreseen, eventless, grey for ever and for ever. And I was going round the world.

It is three weeks later, and the big "A and A" steamer is ploughing along in the midst of a marvellous dazzle of diamond-spangled, pale-blue tropic sea and scorching, pale-blue tropic sky. The passengers, in cool white suits and dresses, are clustered together on the promenade deck, looking eagerly over the port railing, while the captain, telescope in hand, points out something lying only a mile away, and says: "That's Tiki-Hau, so now you've seen a South Sea Island." We are on our way to Tahiti, a twelve-day run from San Francisco, and are not stopping anywhere, but as Tiki-Hau is the only glimpse of land we shall get until we cast anchor in Papeete, every one wants to look at it. Not one of us has ever seen a South Sea Island, and we are all eager to realise this little fragment of our rainbow-coloured childish dreams. Is it as good as we creamed it? we ask ourselves and each other. The verdict, given unanimously, is" "yes - but not the same."

Here is no high green palmy peak, overhanging a waveless sea, with sparkling waterfalls dashing down from crag to crag, like the coloured illustrations in our old school prize books. there are, indeed, just such islands in the Pacific, we are told - many hundreds of them - but there are still more of the kind we are now looking at, which is not half so often mentioned. All south Sea Islands are either high or low; the high island, with lofty mountains and dark, rich volcanic soil, is the familiar island of the picture book, while the low type composed only at coral, is the variety of which Tiki-Hau belongs. What we can see of the island, however, is enough to set at rest any tendency to comparison. None of us want anything better; none of us think there can be anything better, among the wonders that the Great South Seas yet hold in store.

Tiki-Hau is an island of the atoll or ring-shaped type, a splendid circle of seventy and eighty-foot palms, enclosing an inner lagoon clear and still as glass. Outside the windy palms, a dazzling beach runs down to the open sea all round the island - a beach that is like nothing the travellers ever have seen before, for it is made of powdered coral, and is as white as salt, as white as starch, as white as the hackneyed snow-simile itself can paint it. All the island - the whole great ring, many miles in length - is coral too, white, branching, flowering coral under water, white, broken-coral gravel above, with here and there a thin skin of earth collected by a century or two of falling palm-leaves and ocean waste. Outside the magic ring the sea-waves tumble, fresh and blue, upon the cloud-white sand; within, the still lagoon glows like a basin of molten emerald. Above, the enormous palm-trees swing their twenty-foot plumes of gaudy yellow-green to the rush of warm trade-wind, high in the burning sky. A glorious picture indeed - gut one before which the painter well might tremble.

Here for the first time, we begin to understand why pictures of tropical scenes are so few and so unsatisfactory. Paint! what combination of coloured grease that ever came out of a box could hope to suggest the pale green fire of those palm-tree plumes, the jewel-blaze of the lagoon, the sapphire flame of the sea, the aching, blinding whitenesses of spray and sand? Who could paint the sun that is literally flashing back from the light dresses of the passengers, making of every separate person a distinct conflagration, and darting lightning rays out of the officers' gold shoulder-straps and buttons? Does any dweller in the dim grey North really know what light and colour are? did we know, with our tinselled April days, and gentle blue and white August afternoons, that we were so proud of once? Well, we know now; and, alas, in the dim prosaic years that are yet to come, we shall remember!

The ship steams on, the atoll fades away in the distance, and once more comes the changeless level of long blue empty sea. 'but we have seen a coral island, and the picture is ours for ever. 

Flying-fish, skimming and "skittering" over the surface of the waves, we have all become used to now. The first day we met them was a memorable one, all the same - they were so exactly what one had paid one's money to see. Sharks have disappointed us so far; never a sight of the famous "black triangular fin" have we yet enjoyed, and the passengers have an idea that something ought to be said to the steamship company about it. Nor have the equatorial sunsets quite kept up their stage character. Books of travel, and sea literature in general, have led us to expect that the sun, in the tropics, should go out at sunset as though Poseidon had hold of the switch down below the water line, and turned off the light the instant sun and horizon met.

... the sun's rim dips, the stars rush out.
At one stride comes the dark

They don't, Mr. Coleridge, and it doesn't, and you never were there to see for yourself, or you would not have talked beautiful nonsense and misled countless travellers of all ages who did see, but who have refused to look, save through your illustrious spectacles, ever sine. Even on the equator, the run gives one time to dress for dinner (if the toilet is not a very elaborate one) while it is setting, and after it has set. So dies one more illusion. Yet is can easily be spared in the midst of a thousand wild dreams and strange imaginings, realised to the very utmost, as ours are to be ere long.

Tahiti comes at last. In the pearly light of a sunrise pure as a dawn of earliest Eden, we glide into the shadow of a tall, rose-painted peak, spiring eight thousand feet up into heaven, and anchor in the midst of a glassy mirror of violet sea. Papeete, the loveliest, sweetest, and wickedest town of all the wide South Seas, lies before us - just a sparkle of red roofs looking out from under a coverlet of thick foliage, a long brown wharf and a many-coloured crowd. Across the water steals a faint strange perfume, unlike anything I have ever smelled before - heavy, sweet, penetrating, suggestive. . . . It is cocoanut oil scented with the white tiare flower, and never, from Tahiti to Samoa, from Rarotonga to Fiji, Vavau, Manihiki, or Erromanga, will the South Sea traveller lose the odour of it again. Cocoanut oil, and the nutty, heavy smell of copra (dried cocoanut kernel) are charms that can raise in an instant for any old island wanderer, in the farthest corners of the earth, the glowing vision of the wonderful South Sea world.

... Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heartstrings crack,
They start those awful voices o' nights
That whisper: "Old man, come back!"

(Old island wanderers in all parts of the world - settled down to desks in the E.C. district - tramping through the December glare of Pitt Street, Sydney, for "orders" - occupying a tranquil, well-bred billet, and a set of red-tape harness, in the Foreign Office - do you smell the tiare flower, and hear the crooning of the reef, and feel the rush of the warm trade wind, and the touch of the sun-baked sand, under the utu trees once more?)

So I landed in Papeete, and found myself in the South Sea Islands at last.

All that afternoon, like "Tommy" in Barrie's Thrums, I kept saying to myself: "I'm here, I'm here!" ... there was no mistake about Papeete. It was not disappointing or disillusioning. It was only more lifelike than life, more fanciful than fancy, infinitely ahead of all past imaginations. 

There were the waving palms of picture and story, laden with immense clusters of nuts; there were the wonderful bananas, with broad green leaves ten and twelve feet long, enshrouding bunches of fruit that were each a good load for a man; there were the greenhouse flowers of home - the costly rare stephanotis, tuberose, gard a--climbing all over the verandahs of the houses, and filling half-cultivated front gardens with stacks and bouquets of bloom. And the dug-out canoes, made from a single hollowed log supported by an outrigger, flitting about the glassy lagoon like long-legged waterflies - and the gorgeous flamboyant trees, ablaze with vermilion flowers, roofing over the grassy roadway in a series of gay triumphal arches - and above all, beyond all, the fiery-gold sunlight, spilling cataracts of flame through the thickest leafage, turning the flowers to white and red-hot coals, painting the shadows under the houses in waves of ink, and bleaching the dust to dazzling snow - how new, how vivid, how tropical it all was!

The native population was out in full force to see the steamer come in. So, indeed, sere the white residents, in their freshest suits and smartest muslins, but they met with small attention from the little band of newcomers. It was the Tahitians themselves who claimed all our interest - the famous race who had been so well liked by Captain Cook, who had seduced the men of the Bounty from allegiance to King George of England, a hundred and sixteen years ago, who were known all the world over as the most beautiful, the most amiable, and the most hospitable of all the South Sea Islanders. 

Some of the passengers, I fancy, expected to see them coming down to the shore clad in necklaces and fringes of leaves, eager to trade with the newcomers, and exchange large pearls and thick wedges of the tortoiseshell for knives, cloth, and beads. ... Most of us were better prepared, however, having heard a good deal about Papeete, the Paris of the South Seas, from the people of the steamer, and having realised, on our own account, that a great deal of water might run under a bridge in a hundred years, even here in the South Pacific. So the smartness of the native crowd surprised only a few of whom I was not one. On the contrary, I was surprised to find that here, in this big island group, with its fortnightly steamer, its large "white" town, and its bureaucratic French government, some kind of a national dress did really still exist. The Tahitian men were variously attired, some in full suits of white, others in a shirt and a brief cotton kilt. The women, however, all wore the same type of dress - a flowing nightdress of cotton or muslin, usually pink, pale green, or yellow, and a neat small sailor hat made in the islands, and commonly trimmed with a pretty wreath of shells. Most of them wore their hair loose, to show off its length and fineness- Tahitians have by far the most beautiful hair of any island race - and not a few were shoeless, though nearly all had smart parasols. The colour of the crowd was extremely various, for Tahiti has more half and quarter castes than full-blooded natives - in Papeete at all events. The darkest, however, were not more than tea-coloured, and in most instances the features were really good.

So much one gathered in the course of landing. Later on, during he few days I spent in an hotel waiting for the Cook Island steamer - for, alas! I was not staying in Tahiti - there was opportunity for something further in th4e way of observation. But --

But- -- It happens to every one in Tahiti, why should I be ashamed of it? there was once a scientific man, who came to write a book, and took notes and notes and notes - for two days and a half. Then, he thought he would take a morning's rest, and that is five years ago, and he has been resting ever since, and they say in the stores that he has not bought so much as a sheet of letter paper, or a penny bottle of ink, but that his credit for cigars and ice, and things that go with both very well, and for pyjamas to lounge about the back verandah in, and very cheap novels, and silk-grass hammocks, is nearly run out in Papeete. There was a Government official - perhaps it was two, or three, or sixty Government officials - who came to Papeete very full of energy and ability, and very much determined to work wonders in the sleepy little colony. . . . He, or they, is, or are, never to be seen awake before three in the afternoon, and his clerks have to type the signatures to his letters, because he will not trouble to write his name; and their people think they died years and years ago, because they have never carried out their intention of telling some on e to find some one else to send a message to say they are alive. And there are a dozen or fourteen gentlemen who keep stores in Papeete, and if you go in to buy things in the morning or afternoon or evening, mayhap you will find the gentleman or his understudy asleep behind the counter, but mayhap you will find the door shut, and the proprietor away at breakfast, which takes him an hour, or lunch, which takes from two hours to three, or dinner, which occupies him from six till nine inclusive. After that, he may open again for a little while, or he may not.

Must I explain now what happened to me in Papeete or why I am not in a position to add anything to the scientific or ethnological, or geographic knowledge of the world, concerning the Society Islands in general?  

A duty, obvious immediate, and unperformed, is perhaps the best of all spices to a dish of sweet laziness. And there is not on earth's round ball such a spot to be lazy in as pleasant Papeete. One is never fairly awake. It is dreamland - and what a happy dream! The golden light on the still lagoon is surely the "light that never was on sea nor land" - before we sailed in under the purple peaks of Orohena. The chanting of the coral reef far out at sea, unceasing, day and night, is the song the sirens sang to strong Ulysses, in the dream dreamed for all ages by the old Greek poet, long ago. The languorous voices of the island women, sweet and low as the "wind of the western sea" - the stillness of the island houses, where feet go bare upon the soundless floors, and music waxes and wanes so softly now and then in whispering songs or lightly swept piano keys, that it only blends with the long mysterious murmur of the wind in the rustling palm trees, to lull the senses into perfect rest - these, too, are of the world of dream.

Something out of dreamland, also, is the little hotel where most of the travellers stay - a rambling bungalow in a grass enclosure, overrun with vivid flowers and splendid leafage. That the proprietress should welcome her guests in a long lace and muslin nightgown-dress, her pretty brown feet bare, and her flowing wavy hair crowned with a wreath of perfumed gardenia and tuberose, seems quite a natural part of the dream; that the chamber-maids should be beautiful island girls clad in the same garb, and that they should sit in the drawing-room playing the piano and singing wild melancholy island songs, like the sighting of the surf on the shore, when they ought to be making beds or serving dinners, is also "in the picture." that the Chinese cook should do elaborate Parisian cookery, and that the coffee and the curry and the bread for at least the bread-fruit) should be picked in the garden as required; and that there should be no visible means of shutting the door of the bathroom, which is very public, until a carpenter is called in, and that L----, the charming proprietress, should explain with a charming smile: "Only the house been using it all this time," to account completely for the deficiency - all this belongs unmistakably to the irresponsible dream-country. And when the warm tropic night drops down, and one goes wandering in the moonlight, to see for the first time the palm-tree plumes all glassy-silver under the radiant sky, flashing magically as they tremble in the faint night wind, it is more than ever the land of dream that is thus lit up in the soft clear dusk. So vivid is the moonlight, that one can even see the scarlet colour of the flamboyant flowers fallen in the dust, and distinguish the deep violet and hyacinthine hues of the far-off mountain peaks across the bay. . . . How, in such a place, can one waste the night in sleep?

It is certainly not like any sort of waking life one has hitherto known, to find that the market of Papeete - one of the principal sights of the place - is held on Sunday mornings before sunrise. One might have supposed that such a supremely indolent people would scarcely choose the most inconvenient hour of all the twenty-four for a general gathering. But they do choose it, and the visitor who wants to see the market must choose it also.

L--- calls me, herself, at some unearthly hour, not much after four, and I get up and dress in the warm darkness. It is the hot season at present and the air, night and day, is very like a hot bath, and not far behind it in temperature. I have been loafing about the town during the previous day in rather thin shoes, and my feet have been almost blistered by the heat of the ground striking u through light soles, so that I cannot walk very far, and am glad to find the market close at hand. L---, in a fresh muslin nightdress (she has something like fifty or sixty of them), acts as guide. She has put a new coronet of flowers in her hair, and before we reach the market she proceeds to dress me u Tahiti fashion, with long necklaces of sweet white blossoms round my neck, falling all over my dress, and a heavy crown of closely woven gardenias on my head, instead of my hat, which she removes, and politely carries. She wants to pull my hair down as well, but in a temperature of eighty degrees the idea does not sound tempting, so I decline to follow Tahitian custom further. Besides, there is really no knowing where she would stop! 

Then the fruit! bananas as big as cucumbers, as small as ladies' fingers (after which, indeed, this little sugar-sweet variety is named), dark red bananas, flavoured like a peach, large bloomy ones, tasting and looking like custard within; smooth yellow ones, like those exported to other countries, whither the daintier fruits will not safely go - pineapple in rough-skinned heaps (one learns soon in Tahiti how to eat a pineapple, and that is to peel it, cut it into largest possible lumps, eat the latter undiminished even if they make you speechless, and never, never, slice the fruit) - oranges of several different kinds, custard-apples, rose-apples, paw-paws, melons, avocado pears, guavas, mangoes and other fruits the name of which I have never heard - all lying together in masses under the lamplight, costing not as many halfpence to buy as at home they would cost shillings.

The native beauties are here in a merry crowd, intent quite as much upon enjoyment as on business. Scarcely one but wears a flower behind her ear - and if you have ever been in the South Seas, you will know what that pretty little signal means, but if you have not, why then I shall not tell you - and all are so wreathed, and crowned, and necklaced with woven blossoms, that the air is heavy with scent, and the market-place looks as though the transformation scene of a pantomime were just about to begin, with a full chorus of flower-decked nymphs appearing for the dance.

One exceedingly pretty girl, with a perfect cataract of black hair overflowing her pale green gown, and a pair of sparkling dark eyes that could never be matched outside the magic lines of Cancer and Capricorn, is making and frying pancakes with something fruity, nature unknown, inside them. She has half a dozen French officers about her, enjoying breakfast and flirtation at the same time. Another, who is selling a number of the oddest little parcels imaginable, made out of cut-up joints of bamboo, carefully sealed, is doing a good trade among the coloured and semi-coloured ladies. L--- says she is selling ready-made sauces, to be eaten with fish or meat, and adds that she herself will show me what Tahitian sauces are like later on, because there is no on in the whole group fit to act as scullion to her in that important matter - or words to the same effect.

Strange-looking mountain men are here, dressed in shirt and kilt of cotton cloth, patterned in flowers and leaves as big as soup-plates. The former garment is a concession to Papeete - outside the town, the "pareo" or kilt alone forms the Tahitian full-dress suit. These men have come in to sell the "fei," or wild banana which is only found on the highest and most perilous of the mountain precipices. to get it, the Tahitian must climb where not even a goat would venture to go, and make his way back having secured the fruit, carrying a bunch that is a heavy load, even on level ground. Many are the lives that have been lost gathering the "fei," but the Tahitian, like all islanders, is something of a fatalist, and the death of one fruit gatherer never stops another from going a-hunting in the very same place next day.

There is something about the same "fei" that is worth noting. It is one of the standing dishes of the islands - a cooking banana, large, and well-flavoured when baked, but not so attractive on the whole as many of the other kinds. The Tahitian, however, ascribes to this variety a certain magic property, not unlike that of the fabled lotus. If you eat of the "fei" he says, especially if you eat freely of it, you will fall under the spell. For ever, in its working, it binds you to Tahiti. You may go away and without any intention of returning, say goodbye to the islands, and place many thousand miles of land and sea between yourself and sweet Tahiti, saying to yourself that you and Papeete have no more to do with one another for ever. . . . Yet by-and-by-some day, one knows not when; it may be soon, or it may be late, but it will surely come - you will return to Tahiti. The spell of the fei will work, and draw you back again.

So the natives said, and I thought the fancy a pretty one, and wondered whether it had really any connection with the lotus myth, and then forgot all about it.

That is three years ago, and since those days I have travelled the whole world over, leaving Tahiti behind as one leaves a station passed long ago on a railway journey, upon a line that one never expects to traverse again. As I write, the snows of winter Britain lie thick outside my window, and a sea of Arctic coldness breaks in freezing green and grey upon a desolate shore. Nothing on earth seems father away than the warm blue waves and flowers that never fade, and shining coral sands of Tahiti. But ... there is a steamer running southward before long, and a great sunny city on the other side of the world where the island boats lie waiting at the quays. And one of those island boats, in a month or two, will carry a passenger back to Tahiti - a passenger who ate of the fei three years ago, and went away for ever, but on whom the spell of the magic fruit has worked - after all. 

An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908.  

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