A Tropical Sequence
WE were at high tea,” on the broad veranda, munching thin, crisp slices of toast. Where one dines at two P. M., tea and toast naturally come in with the twilight, — weak tea and well-browned, butterless toast; likewise that surprising delicacy, peculiar to the tropics, preserved carrots, for even the carrot is not without honor when it is out of its element.
We were at the water’s edge: the ripples warily climbed the coral terrace below us; the sea fell bravely upon the reef with a low and soothing moan ; a passion vine that half veiled the tranquil marinorama bathed its splendid blossoms in the afterglow. Thus agreeably environed, I supped with my old friend the venerable pastor of a much-vaunted mission at the antipodes.
He was rosy with the passionless flush of a temperate second youth; his thin gray locks brushed briskly upward were streaked over a shining pate. He had fervently blessed the toast, the tea, and the preserved carrots, and had recommended us singly and in groups to the tender mercies of the All Merciful, — by us, I mean the withered partner of his joys and sorrows, the three daughters in starched gingham gowns, and myself.
How restful this pastoral life, so to speak, after the tribulations of travel ! Now we could talk complacently of the old days when I had found shelter under that hospitable roof, and of the changes
— how few for them, how many for me !
— that had occurred since my former visit; yet our table talk was as frugal as the repast, for we were never quite able to get rid of the impression that gathering about the board was a kind of solemnity, and to be observed as such. Hence the collision of cup and saucer seemed irreverent; the guilty one turned with a startled look; and as for the light laughter of the natives in the groves of the village, was it not worldly ? Could I not see with half an eye that eternal vigilance was the price of the pastorate ?
The white waxen bells of the floribunda swung to and fro, pouring their deadly odor upon the air; the dusk deepened rapidly; the night breeze grew moist and cool. After an embarrassing silence, we gratefully withdrew to the sitting-room, where a tall astral lamp with a depressed globe stood in solitary state upon the centre-table, and the four bare walls were suffused with a soft glow-worm light.
We conversed shyly, as if none of us felt quite at home. In my mind, I ran about in search of a topic to touch upon and fill the imminent deadly breach ; I looked about me, trying to nurse my interest in this reserved circle. I saw that in years change had not visited it; nothing was added, nothing was taken away. Yes, Elizabeth was absent. “ Where is Elizabeth?” I asked, trying to appear unconcerned, for I had liked her.
Elizabeth is married,” said the pastor’s wife, with an apologetic inflection as if it were an unmaidenly thing for the girl to follow the example of her fostermother.
It seemed to me wise to leave Elizabeth to her fate, especially as at that moment the youngest of the slim daughters of the house rose, at a signal from the pastor, and brought from a side table several copies of the New Testament, in large type, bound in sheep,— one for each of us.
We drew near the lofty lamp, six of us, in a solemn circle. The books were opened at a mark ; my place was found for me by the eldest daughter. The pastor read a verse in a full round voice; the wife followed in her piping treble; then the daughters three took up the strain. With some embarrassment, I read in turn; my finger had been sealed to my allotted lines from the moment the reading began and I saw which way the tide set. I was careful not to repeat the error which distinguished me on my former visit: on that occasion we were reading a Psalm, and I cried Selah! when it came my turn. I was innocent, I was ignorant, but I was not conscious of the fact until I saw that silence, a brief silence, followed each unutterable Selah during the rest of that memorable evening.
Having finished our devotions, we sat in spasmodic converse. Sometimes, in the intervals, there was the refreshing frou-frou of starched gingham ; sometimes a large moth, with brilliant ruby eyes and blood spots on its wings, dashed through the open window, became delirious at the white sheen of the astral globe, darted in and out in a fine frenzy, and then soared to the ceiling and fluttered noisily ; all through that solemn evening the mosquito sounded his horn.
By nine P. M. I was lighted to my room, a large apartment opening on the lawn. It was quite as I had known it of yore : the huge four-posted bed with profuse folds of netting, the broad toiletstand, the cumbersome bureau ; a few books of a serious character lay on the table.
Presently I heard the gentle people ascend to the chambers above without fastening a door or window ; it reminded me that I was once again in a semicivilized community, where bolts and bars are unknown.
In a few moments all was silent. I threw open the door upon the lawn : a soft air stirred among the towering trees ; the young moon was not yet set. The beauty of the night distracted me ; I was unable to sleep. Slipping on my dressing-gown, I repaired to the veranda over the sea, and lighted a cigarette.
So Elizabeth was married ! flow often we had sat as I was sitting, and looked oif upon the sea. The reef sang to my ears as of old, pluming itself with spray that looked like diamond dust in the moonlight; the oppressive perfume of the floribunda freighted the soft, cool air; the moon sank behind the sharp, black rim of the horizon ; the fireflies slid to and fro among the shadows, like tiny shooting stars ; “ llokoolele,” the natives call them — shooting stars ! And that reminded me, Hokoolélé was the star of her tribe. When but a child her precocity awakened the sympathy of tlie pastor’s household : she was grafted upon the family tree ; reared as a daughter among the daughters of the house; clothed, fed, bred, like them. While she was still too young to realize the loss, her parents died. Then she was kept aloof from her own people, and weaned from all their ways. When I saw her, at fifteen, she was a woman, and not all the ginghams of Connecticut could spoil her sensuous beauty. Soft-eyed, low-voiced, supple, graceful, this Hokoolélé, who doffed her name when she became a Christian and was christened Elizabeth, — this wondrous girl in gingham, with her demure ways, her prim speeches, her obtrusive code of morals, — was an enigma that had charmed and puzzled me. Is it any wonder that she should have been the first flower plucked from that garden of gil ls
My last cigarette was cold in my lingers ; I was a little chilled, for at midnight the air blew fresh from the lulls. So Elizabeth was married !
I stole back to my room and put out the candle, which was still burning.
The next day was the Sabbath. How the spirit of the Lord’s day broods over the regenerated tribes of the Antipodes ! The solemnity of our matutinal meal was undisturbed save by the subdued murmur of the sea. In the door-yard the domestic fowls stretched lazily as is their custom of a Sunday; occasionally some hen, filled with wisdom and experience, broke the monotony with the sharp staccato of her recitative. The villagers spoke in hushed voices as they passed the house, walking with that undulating motion which seems to quicken the air, and sweeten it with the fragrance of their inevitable floral accompaniment.
Family prayers were more impressive than common, as befitted the day; and we were clothed in white raiment when we marched in grave and dignified procession down the long walk to the front gate, and thence by the road around the corner to the square white meetinghouse ; this we invariably did, instead of stepping quietly through the side gate, a short cut, and allowable on a week day when there was no service.
We filled the pastoral pew, facing the aisles, and watched the natives as they quietly glided in. They were resplendent after their kind, in purple and fine linen. Those who had shoes for the most part bore them in their hands as far as the threshold, where they were put on with some effort; but they were put off again almost as soon as the worshipers were seated. They imagine a vain thing who think that the dispensable shoe is a luxury.
Through all of that long, long sermon the hornets buzzed in and out of the window; sometimes a fitful gust from the sea fluttered the broad leaves in the banana hedge, and the breeze in the dense branches of the trees without was as the sound of a sudden shower.
In the high, old-fashioned choir-loft the natives sang lustily to the accompaniment of a wheezing melodeon. How I missed the voice of Elizabeth, that superb contralto voice which used to lead the dusky choristers. Perhaps she was even then piping like the nightingales that thrill the bowers in the villas of Frascati.
I grew restless in the heat of the afternoon ; I began to think that the parsonage without Elizabeth was a bore. There were old haunts to be revisited about the island, and new spots to be discovered. I would fly into the wilderness, and set up my tabernacle in the mountain solitudes, where I could at least escape the frequent reminders that depreciated the frank hospitality of the pastor and his house.
It is no very difficult task to prepare for a tramp in the tropics : your food falls like manna from the boughs above you ; your drink flows at your feet; you have a veritable bed of roses ; and as for shelter, it is an impertinence to dream of such a thing.
Plan I had none ; a bee or a bird was pilot enough for me.
There was a formal adieu at the hospitable gate,—a ponderous and patriarchal farewell. There was a hope expressed that we might be reunited, if not in the serene but suffocating atmosphere of the mission house, then in that bright world whose mysterious geography seemed as plain as day to the old pastor.
I passed out of the village saluted by the populace ; all extremes meet at the antipodes. Why should they not ? I saluted them again, as cordially as if I had been able to distinguish one from another, and strode onward down the wide, white road that girdles the island close upon the sea.
My heart grew light in my bosom. I sang a song of liberty, albeit I am no singer, and am never asked to sing ; but somehow I bubbled over, and made the woods ring with thanksgiving and praise. I was passing southward toward Point Venus, on the Tahitian shore. On my right, the clouds were pierced by the sharp needles of Fatahua. I had heard of the picturesque retreat of the warriors who years ago, nested like young eagles among those mighty peaks, held the vultures of France at bay ; why not spy out this wild haunt ? At the very thought my fancy turned lightly from romance to historical research.
With the single exception of the tamarind-tree planted by Captain Cook at Point Venus, there is nothing in that part of the world of more interest to the antiquarian than Fatahua. It is a toy fort hidden away up in the mountains, by a stream that makes a clear leap of a thousand feet from under the shadow of cloud-crowned cliffs, and feeds a slender river that winds through dust and heat down a fine valley to the sea.
When Pomare, the queen, was a power, instead of a puppet, this eyrie might have been an altar to some deity ; then came the French siege, and the dismayed natives fled from the shore to the mountains. Once within the battlements of Fatahua, they could defy the elements; and they did, rejoicing like the immortals. Close at hand grew fruits in inexhaustible profusion; the wood was filled with game; a stream flowed within their gates ; and there was shade and sunshine without limit in that little world above the clouds.
The one possible hope for the French in the siege of Tahiti was to gain by strategy that fort of Fatahua; with the enemy in the heart of this stronghold the submission of the Tahitians would naturally follow. Two natives, treacherous dogs from a neighboring island, were bribed, and at night, by sinuous paths, ascending the mountain on the unpeopled slope of it, the French infantry was led to a cliff commanding the little fort. At daybreak, while the young eagles were pluming their wings, a volley of hot shot was poured into their nest, and it was speedily deserted.
There is a blow which paralyzes the heart, and they received it then. The ill-fated Tahitians came down to the sea again, and cast their nets as of yore, but they have never regained their pride or power, and never will.
I resolved to take Fatahua alone and single-handed; this seemed to me a dramatic justice. I laid in rations for a twelve-hour siege, footed it along a road that threads Fatahua valley, passed a sugar-mill loading the air with saccharine steams, crossed acres of thriving cane, fought shy of some native huts scattered among the bread-fruit trees, and was always within sound of the little river that dashed onward to the sea in the jolliest mood imaginable.
Having wedged myself in among the hills that are locked at the foot of the mountain, I began ascending. At this point three streams ran together, as if they were in a hurry to keep an appointment at the trails turning hither, and very soon lost themselves in the dense guava jungle.
I paused, perplexed. A wandering native took me upon his shoulders and kindly bore me across the second of the three streams, and I resumed my stealthy march.
The middle stream and the middle path, beginning at the big pardonas, is the only key to Fatahua. It was a long pull, and a weary one ; the native had disappeared, and with him the last hope of human aid. Again my trail led me knee-deep into the riotous torrent; with shoes and stockings in hand, I forded it, only to find that it was next to impossible to replace them, for they were moist already. My kingdom for a shoehorn !
It is but two miles to the fort from the outer edge of the jungle, — two almost perpendicular and rather spongy miles ; a combination of green shadows and gushing springs with an opaque background of guava growth.
At last I climbed into the open, and paused upon the edge of a frightful chasm; on the opposite brink, sixty yards away, the little fort hung like a swallow’s nest under the eaves of the cliff. The gate had fallen from its hinges, and lay rotting in the moss ; the parapets were marked with vines; the bastion was a bed of roses ; the mango and the wild lime marked the ruin of turret and tower ; the green banners of the plantain crackled in the gale; and the sentinel lizards, watchful at their posts, surrendered and slipped out of view at the approach of the invader. Without bloodshed the fort was mine !
Leaning from the dismantled ramparts, I heard the hiss of the water as it plunged into the darksome pool a thousand feet below; I saw the birds’ backs as they sped through space ; I dropped a great golden lime into the pit, and saw it go out in the profound shadow, like a globe of fire.
What a sanctuary for a recluse ! Why not roll a stone against the narrow threshold, and forswear the world ?
The deserted magazine, overrun with roses, was shelter enough from the brief showers that fall almost hourly through the night and day, and even from the gales that sometimes visit that island of tranquil delights.
Meat and drink were there, and music and sleep. What rapture to be voluntarily cast forth and forgotten of men ! A place wherein to nurse one’s fancies, and to brood on the great work one is always going to do. but never does.
While I mused thus the heavens darkened ; down came the javelins of the rain in a sharp and sudden shower. I ignominiously retreated to the magazine, and threw myself upon a mat left by some earlier hermit. It was dark and chilly within that windowless habitation ; there was a suggestion of mildew and of unmistakable discomfort, despite the picturesque element which ever predominates in the tropics.
On second thought, did I care to end my days in Fatahua ? Suddenly the doorway was darkened by a stalwart brave, whose noiseless step had given no warning of his approach.
On his shoulder he balanced a bamboo laden with clusters of feü, the wild plantain, that grows abundantly on the heights, and which, when cooked, is indispensable to the Tahitian palate.
He paused at the threshold until his friendly greeting had been returned; then he entered with some diffidence, deposited his fruits in a corner, squatted upon the mat near me, and breathed audibly, for his burden was heavy, and the trail no primrose path. Except for the paren that girded his loins, my visitor was quite naked.
Long we gazed at each other with an earnest, honest gaze that ended in a smile of recognition ; we had never met before, but the uncivilized and the overcivilized are brothers. He placed his hand on my shoulder and stroked me fondly. From the back of his ear he drew his tobacco pouch, and rolled a cigarette, of which we took alternate puffs in token of perpetual peace.
Presently he made a fruit offering, guavas, mangoes, limes; then a drink offering, water in a cup formed of a folded leaf; and then — we had been silent until now —he said, in hesitating English with a childish accent, “ I know you ; you like me ; you come my house.”
I nodded assent. The savage shouldered his burden, and stepped lightly down the trail, turning now and again to give me a look or a word of encouragement ; at every stream he put down his load and bore me dry-shod to the other shore ; when it showered, as it now did at intervals, we halted under some broad-leaved tree.
Once we sat in the moss and renewed our vow in tobacco; and thus tranquilly we came at last to a log smouldering by a stream, and our tramp was ended.
It was a large log, partially decayed ; it had been fired long before, and was slowly and imperceptibly burning, like a gigantic piece of punk. At meal time it could be blown into a flame ; a few dry twigs and leaves heaped against it served to warm the frugal meal. This is the national Tahitian hearth, — a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night; it puts the blue spurt of the lucifer match to the blush; showers cannot quench it; the gale gives it new life; it was the one luxury in the household of my host.
I was attracted by a rude shelter, close at hand, and went thither to inspect it. Imagine a screen of leaves, about six feet wide and eight feet high, slanting against the trade-wind, and supported by a couple of unbarked saplings; the gale rushed over it, the rain slid down it. The sides and front were as open as the day. Three logs hedged in a bed of fine grass-mats, which, like a carpet, filled the space from the low eaves in the trusses to the sapling supports in front; plump clean pillows were stowed in corners ; an uncovered calabash contained articles of feminine apparel; a silver thimble and a bit of unfinished embroidery with a needle thrust through it lay on the mat; a hand-mirror was lodged among the beams of the roof. Evidently the bower was not unvisited of women. From the peak of the roof hung a cluster of ripe bananas ; I filled my hands, and returned to the blazing log.
For the most part, my companion and I communed in silence. You may sit for hours by a savage without uttering a syllable, yet he will turn to you at intervals with an intelligent glance and an appreciative smile, as if he comprehended everything you left unsaid.
While we were thus growing in grace we were startled by a sharp cry. In a moment we discovered the cause of the alarm : a goat, standing on its hind legs, with one hoof directly pressing the support of the bower, was playing havoc with the bananas.
With the cry a woman sprang from the thicket, a babe at her breast, and seizing the destroyer by the horns she lustily dragged him away. For a few moments there was a struggle, while the child screamed with fright, but with the aid of my comrade the beast was beaten into the bush, and the woman, breathless with exertion and laughter, returned to the bower, where she nestled her babe in her arms.
I was presented in an ingenuous fashion, and seating myself on the threshold with unfeigned interest I regarded the hostess. She was scantily clad ; her single garment, sleeveless, and with the fastening over the breast broken in the struggle, slipped from her well-turned shoulder; her rich locks fallen from the comb partially veiled her. Her beauty was heightened by her confusion, and she hastily sought to swathe the naked babe in the folds of her robe.
To my surprise, she addressed me in English, admirable English, which flowed from her lips as freely as if it were her native tongue. This was her husband, she said, and this her home. There was something in her voice that startled me ; it seemed the echo of a forgotten song.
The babe was laid to sleep upon a pillow; the mother busied herself with cookery ; the father meanwhile looking on idly.
We grew communicative; dinner al fresco is ever a j ovial meal, — fish from the sea, feü from the mountain, breadfruit, oranges, bananas, from the wild plantations of the valley. We broke the bread of ease, and solaced ourselves with such trivial scraps of gossip as were flung about the island from lip to lip.
The woman’s conversational abilities astounded me ; while the man sat in statuesque indifference, she spoke of nature and her life in nature with unaffected enthusiasm. As we grew more familiar I ventured to intrude upon her confidences, and not without startling results.
This was Hokoolélé; this was the Elizabeth whom I had known some years before, when she was in gingham and abeyance at the mission house. She had not recognized me, but this was scarcely surprising : I was fagged out; I had achieved a beard; I was weatherworn, and by no means so mirthful as when she knew me in my adolescence Moreover, at the pastor’s house, almost the only guest house in the village, she saw many strangers, and was probably interested in but few of them; but finding that we were indeed old friends, she told me her story, which ran something like this : —
Her fate, the bronzed fellow who piloted me to her fireside, first saw her at the church, whither he had wandered out of idle curiosity, for he was not of the elect. The love of a savage is instantaneous and overwhelming. He loved; he watched her afar off for a little time, fearful of stepping into the charmed circle that surrounded her. Their eyes had met; what the lip dares not utter in secret the eyes publish to the world. He piped to her in the twilight. He wooed her with both flute and harp, — a harp strung with horsehair : it is possible with this harp to say even unutterable things.
Night after night the bronzed one came out of his lair in the hills, and woke his lady from her Christian slumbers to listen to the loves of her race.
He pictured the life she had been so early weaned from ; the divine passion inflamed him; in his heart he caressed her. His beseeching songs grew more fervent, until they rose into threnes and lamentations, and then she yielded ; but flute and harp were not resigned until they had sounded the last strain of the epithalamium.
The pastor wedded them, because he saw that this marriage was the least of the two evils that threatened Elizabeth.
At long intervals she revisited her early home, but she seemed to have let fall from her, like a mantle, all the influences of domestic Puritan life. She was no longer Elizabeth, but Hokoolélé, the shooting star.
“ And you prefer this life,” I asked, “ to any other ? ”
“ Infinitely,” she replied, in a tone of earnest conviction.
A little way down the stream stood a thatched hut ; thither I was conducted by the husband of Elizabeth, and for his sake and hers was most cordially welcomed by the master and his household.
The bronzed one bade me farewell, and vanished into the night; I was to resume my pilgrimage to nowhere in particular on the following morning.
I had left Elizabeth standing in the fire-light, bare-headed, bare-footed, bare armed, and with a bare shift to cover her, as gentle a savage as ever drew breath or blood; but I wondered if her wakeful eyes ever turned again to the luxury of shelter and plenty, and if the shadow of repentance plunged its airy dagger to her heart, and made horrible the long silences of the night.
Charles Warren Stoddard.