Sing: A Song of Sixpence
SEVERAL years ago while living at Papeete, the capital of Tahiti in French Oceania, I found myself so low in funds that it seemed the part of wisdom to retire for a time to one of the remote country-districts until I could repair my fortunes. On the windward side of the island, thirty-five miles from the town, I found an attractive place about an acre in extent, with a one-room house on it precisely suited to my needs. My verandah overlooked the sea, and a clear mountain-stream flowed through my small domain, so that I had both freshand salt-water bathing; but a more important feature than either of these was the cheapness of the rental — $3.00 per month.
The land thereabout was so fertile that I decided to make a vegetable garden. In the tropics gardening would be a delightful occupation, and it might easily prove so profitable that I should never again need to resume my old trade of journalism. So I set to work, hopefully enough, glad of the necessity which had brought me to this decision.
The experience was disillusioning. Millions of tiny red ants carried away most of my seed, and, if any happened to be overlooked by the ants, the moment they sent forth green shoots these were sheared off by land crabs. After three months of patient effort all that I had to show for my toil was two ears of sweet corn (or, better, corncobs, for the rats had eaten off the kernels), three small tomatoes, and one squash. Having estimated my time as worth, at a modest figure, twenty cents an hour, and adding expenditures for seed, garden tools, and so forth, I found that these vegetables cost me $15.50 each.
Nevertheless I resolved to try once more, and ordered from America a fresh supply of seed — a small quantity this time, for my funds were getting low; and furthermore, because of my innumerable enemies I meant to garden on a reduced front. But when I had cleared away the weeds — how marvelously they had flourished meanwhile, without care! — and saw the hosts of ants drawn up in waiting battalions, and the ground perforated like a sieve with the holes of land crabs, and a crab at the entrance of each hole, waving his keen-edged nippers in the air, I lost heart. ‘It is useless,’ I thought. ‘I’d better go back to journalism. Although not a lucrative profession, it is more profitable than gardening, and if I practise it faithfully I should be able to earn at least twenty cents an hour.’ Therefore I put away my tools and left Nature to plant whatever she would in my garden plot. She chose, as before, lantana and false tobacco.
That afternoon I was oiling and cleaning my typewriter, which had long been rusting in disuse, when a Chinaman named Hop Sing drove past my door in his dilapidated spring-wagon.
He lived a quarter of a mile down the lagoon beach from my place, in a house which he himself had built from the boards of old packing-cases and roofed over with flattened-out biscuit-tins. I knew that he had a vegetable garden, — although he raised only sweet potatoes, watermelons, and a very tough variety of field corn, — so I hailed him, thinking he might find use for my dollar’s worth of seed. He stopped, willingly enough, and I brought out to him a small packet each of beans, sweet corn (Golden Bantam), squash, pumpkin, lettuce, and tomato seed, all of the best varieties. Hop grunted expressions of mild interest while I explained what the various packets contained, and, when I had finished, asked: ‘How much?’ ‘Oh, nothing at all,’ I replied. ‘A little present for you.’ He grasped the back of the seat to steady himself, perhaps, from the shock of receiving a present in that heathen land, and his black eyes glittered a trifle more brightly; but these were the only evidences of emotion — if it may be called emotion — that he displayed.
I forgot Hop Sing forthwith; there were other things to think of, chiefly the precarious state of my finances. Having counted on my garden to furnish food, I had spent my little capital all too freely. Luckily my rent was paid several months in advance, but I had left only 128 francs — a little more than $5.00 American, at the current rate of exchange — and not a penny coming in until I had written something, story, sketch, or what not. The manuscript would have to be sent to America, and even though it should be accepted at once — a remote possibility — I could not hope to receive a cheque for at least three months. How was I to live in the meantime? There were bananas on my place and about fifty coconut palms; but my landlord, a native, reserved the right to both the nuts and the fruit, which was no more than fair, considering the modest rental he asked for house and grounds. The nuts were gathered as they fell and the bananas picked green to send to the Papeete market. I thought of fishing, but, remembering past experiences, I knew it would be foolish to count on that. I had no better luck at fishing than at gardening. No, I should have to live, somehow, on my 128 francs. That, of course, was impossible, so I resolved not even to try. I kept 28 francs for incidental expenses, spent 25 francs for native tobacco, — if I was to write I should have to smoke, — and the remainder for sweet potatoes and tinned beef. When the food was gone — well, I should worry about that when the time came.
Three days later I was on page two of a sketch which I planned to call ‘Settling Down in Polynesia,’ a story of some experiences I had had the year before. It was Sunday, but necessity knows no holy days and I was doing my utmost to work. The mere fact of having to work seemed to make accomplishment impossible. I had written and rewritten the two pages of my story, vainly trying with each new draft to blacken page three. I was aroused from a mood of profound dejection by a knock at the back door. It was Hop Sing, and with him were his wife, their three small children, and a wizened little man with a scant beard and shaped like an interrogation point. Hop was dressed in a clean cotton undershirt and a pair of dungaree trousers. His wife wore a pyjamasuit of black silk, and her hair was elaborately dressed. She carried one child on her arm, led another by the hand, and had a third, the baby, in a sling at her back. The children were beautifully dressed, and each of them had on a little skullcap of blue silk with flowers and butterflies embroidered on it in gold thread. The ancient wore a coal like a dressing-gown. He was very feeble and got down from the wagon with difficulty. It was pathetic to see the effort it cost him to walk. He would advance his staff a few inches and, grasping it with both hands, make a shuffling hop up to it. Then he would rest for a moment while gathering strength for a new effort. We helped him up the steps and at length all were seated on the verandah, Mrs. Sing sitting sidewise on her chair because of the baby in the sling. My unwashed breakfast-dishes were on the kitchen table, and several slices of fried sweet potato on a greasy plate looked anything but appetizing. I was ashamed of the disorder of the place, the more so because this was the first visit I had ever had from the Sing family. Both Hop and his wife looked about in appraising fashion, but whether they approved or disapproved it. was impossible to judge from their faces.
‘My fadda-law,’ said Sing, indicating the old man.
I smiled and nodded.
A rather long silence followed. I felt embarrassed and could think of nothing to say.
‘What name you?’ he then asked.
I told him. Another interval of silence. I gave my forefinger to the baby on Mrs. Sing’s lap. It clasped it gravely and held on. Mrs. Sing smiled. Her father, too, smiled; at least his face wrinkled suddenly, like a pool into which a pebble has been thrown. The small baby in the sling was asleep, its chubby arms sticking straight out. It looked like a doll rather than a real baby. The oldest child, a boy of six or seven, had the curious mature look and the air of profound wisdom common to many Chinese children.
Sing took from his pocket one of the packets of seeds I had given him.
‘What name this?’ he asked.
‘That? Com, sweet com — Golden Bantam. Very good. Tahiti corn no good — too tough. This com fine.’
‘ Where you get? ‘
‘From America,’ I replied.
He brought forth the other packets,
‘ All this Melican seed ? ‘
I told him that it was, and the best that could be bought.
He was silent for a moment. Then he said: ‘Make fine garden now. No have good seed before. Make plenty big tomato now, plenty squash, plenty corn. Bimeby you see.’
Thinking of my three tomatoes, about the size of marbles, I was not sanguine about Sing’s being plenty big. However, I expressed the hope that they might be. I brought out my seed catalogue and showed him pictures of the various vegetables. He was much interested and exchanged remarks in Chinese with his father-in-law. Meanwhile one of those heavy local showers common at Tahiti in the rainy season broke with violence. The thunder of water on my tin roof was deafening. Soon the cloud melted into pure sunlight, the last of it descending in a fine mist shot through with rainbow lights. Sing then went to his wagon and returned with three huge watermelons. He made a second excursion, bringing this time a live fowl, a bottle of Dubonnet (vin apéritif), and a basket containing seventeen eggs. All of these articles he placed on my kitchen tabic.
‘Littly plesent, you,’ he said with a deprecatory gesture. Mrs. Sing and her father then rose, and all three shook my hand, bidding me good-bye with smiles and nods. A moment later they drove off, leaving me astonished at this expression of Chinese friendliness.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the value to me of their generous gift. Tinned beef is a nourishing food, but I had lost all relish for it during the Great War. As for sweet potatoes, I had eaten so many while knocking about the Pacific on trading schooners that I could hardly endure the sight of them. How welcome, then, was this more palatable food! I planned to have a chicken dinner at once, but on second thought decided not to kill my fowl. Perhaps she would lay, and it I could somehow procure a rooster I might, from that small beginning, raise enough chickens to provide for all my needs. So I staked the hen out in the dooryard, with a string tied to her leg; and, having found several coconuts partly eaten by rats, I broke these open and gave her a good meal. Then, having dined on a six-egg omelet with half a watermelon for dessert, I resumed my work with interest and enthusiasm. All the afternoon the bell of my typewriter rang with the steady persistence of an alarm gong at a railroad crossing, and pages of manuscript fell from my hands like autumn leaves after a heavy frost. By six o’clock that evening I had reached the end of my ‘Settling Down’ story.
I had no time to lose if I were to get it in the north-bound mail. The monthly steamer from New Zealand to San Francisco was due at Papeete on Monday. I decided to go into town to post the manuscript, not being willing to trust the native mail-carrier with so precious a document. A motor-bus ran daily between Papeete and Taravao, a village just beyond my place, but the fare for the round-trip was twenty-four francs. I should need at least ten francs for stamps and expenses in town, so I decided to walk in to Papeete and, if I had enough money left, to ride back. Therefore, having fortified myself with a small glass of Dubonnet and another six-egg omelet, I set out.
It was a beautiful night, dewy and still and fresh, with a full moon rising above the palm trees on the Taravao isthmus. The road wound this way and that around the shoulders of the hills, now skirting the sea, now crossing the mouths of broad valleys where the hupé—the night breeze from the interior — blew cool and refreshing. I had glimpses through the trees of lofty precipices festooned with the silvery smoke of waterfalls and, on the left hand, of the lagoon bordered by the barrier reef where great combers, rising to break on the coral, caught the moonlight in lines of white fire. From native houses along the road came snatches of song, a strange mixture of airs, part French, part Tahitian, to the accompaniment of guitars, accordions, and mouth-organs. On verandahs here and there women were busy with their ironing, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a lamp beside them, and far out on the lagoon the lights of the fishermen were already beginning to appear.
I walked briskly along the moonlit road, feeling at peace with the world and with myself. How pleasant it would be, I thought, really to settle down in this remote tropical paradise, to remain here for the rest of my life. W here could I find kindlier people, or a life more suited to one of my indolent habits? If it were true that a man’s wealth may be estimated in terms of the things he can do without, then in that sense I might hope soon to achieve affluence. Material possessions added little to the sum of one’s happiness, and I could always earn enough at writing to provide for the simple necessities of life. Whenever the mildeyed melancholy tropical wolves came sniffing apologetically at my door I could knock off a story of one sort, or another; then I could live on the proceeds of the sale of it until it became necessary to write another.
So I mused, proceeding on my way: but at length, toward midnight, when I had covered about Half the distance to Papeete, I found myself again thinking of food. The nourishment stored in my second six-egg omelet had already been absorbed and its energy expended. I had a drink of water from a mountain stream and tightened my belt a notch or two.
‘I’ll have a good breakfast when I get to town,’ I thought. For three francs I could buy a large portion of chop suey at one of the Chinese restaurants; that would have to suffice until I returned to the country, which I meant to do at once, as soon as I had posted my manuscript.
At a place where the road followed a lonely strip of beach I came to a thatched hut, and sitting near it, by a fire of driftwood, were an old native man and woman. I stopped for a moment to enjoy the beauty of the scene. The stems of the palm trees were black against the firelight, which flickered over the faces of the old couple and cast huge shadows behind them. They saw me, and the old man called out, ‘Haere mai ta maa! (Come and eat!)’ This is merely a friendly greeting, and I replied in the usual way, ‘Paid vau (I’m not hungry)’; but if my empty stomach could have spoken it would have made indignant denial of that statement. But evidently they really meant that I should partake of their midnight supper. They were roasting in the coals what appeared to be shellfish and some sort of native vegetable, and an appetizing fragrance filled the air. ‘Come!’ said the old woman in the native tongue. ‘Try this, it is very good ‘ — and putting several generous portions in a coconut shell she held it up to me.
Good? I should think it was! The meat of the shellfish was as delicately flavored as that of the finest lobster, and the vegetable had a mealy, nutlike taste. My hosts seemed delighted at my appetite and urged more food upon me. ‘Eat! Eat!’ said the old man. ‘We have plenty—enough for a dozen,’ and he pointed to several buckets filled with uncooked food; so I ate with a will.
‘What kind of shellfish are these?’ I asked. ‘ Did you get them on the reef? ‘
‘Shellfish! These are not shellfish; they’re tupas.’
‘What!’ I exclaimed. Tupas are land crabs, and those I was eating with such relish were members of the pestiferous family, countless in number, which had assisted the ants in ruining my garden. I did n’t know they were edible, but the old man told me that Tahitians thought them a great delicacy, which they are, in truth. As for the vegetable, it was not a vegetable at all, but a nut, the fruit of the mapé, the Pacific chestnut-tree. These trees flourish at Tahiti. They are found along the banks of streams and in moist or swampy places. There was a grove of them on my place, and the ground beneath was littered with nuts that I had never bothered to examine, not knowing that they were of value. I was appalled at thought of the time and effort I had wasted trying to make a garden, when all the while there was an inexhaustible food-supply at hand, to be enjoyed without labor, to be had for the mere taking. But no; the taking of land crabs could not be such a simple matter. I remembered the wariness of those which infested my garden plot. They did all their damage in my absence. The moment they saw me coming they scurried to their holes and, if I made so much as a move in their direction, dodged down to safety. I had once caught one by digging him out, but that cost me two hours of hard work.
I asked the old man how he caught them and he showed me a method so simple and reasonable that I wondered I had not thought of it. He had a fishpole and line, but instead of a hook at the end of the line he tied there a bunch of green leaves from the hibiscus tree. These leaves and the blossoms of the hibiscus are the principal food of land crabs. We went a little way from the hut to a spot in full moonlight where there were many crab-holes. ‘Now stand very still,’ he said. In a moment the crabs, which had scurried away at our approach, came warily up again. He then cast his bait very much as one does in fly-fishing. Immediately several crabs came sidling toward it. They fastened their nippers in the leaves, each of them trying to drag the bundle to his hole. The old man then gave a deft jerk to the line, and the crabs, not being able to disengage their nippers quickly enough, were dragged to his feet. He pounced upon them and threw them into the bucket with the others. I then tried my hand, with such success that I was tempted to forgo my journey to town. I wanted to go home at once and begin fishing in my garden, but more prudent counsels prevailed. One’s appetite for food so plentiful and so easily procured might become jaded in time; furthermore, I should need a certain amount of money for clothing, shaving materials, tobacco, and so forth. Therefore, having bade farewell to my kindly hosts, I proceeded on my way and reached Papeete at dawn, just as the steamer that was to carry my manuscript to America was entering the harbor. Stamps for the precious parcel cost three francs. I then breathed over it a silent prayer and slipped it into the letter-chute.
Papeete is a colorful town, particularly in the early morning when the inhabitants are going to and from the market. Everyone is in the streets then, and the French and Chinese restaurants are filled with people exchanging gossip over their morning coffee. I had an excellent breakfast at a cost of four francs, and then strolled here and there doubly enjoying the gayety of the scene after my long sojourn in the country. I was walking along the Quai de Commerce looking at the shipping when someone touched my shoulder. It was a bald fat little Chinaman who had evidently been running after me, for he was out of breath and could not speak for a moment. Then he began talking in Chinese-Tahitian, a sort of bêche-demer that I don’t understand. I shook my head. He renewed his efforts, speaking very earnestly and rapidly, and presently I caught the name ‘Hop Sing.’
‘Hop Sing?’ I said.
‘É! É! (Yes! Yes!)’ he replied, and of a sudden he found some English words.
‘You know Hop Sing? Hop Sing flen, you?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I know him. Hop Sing live close me, Papeari.’
Papeari is the name of the district where I was living.
The Chinaman’s face glowed with pleasure.
‘Maitai! Maitai! (Good! Good!) Hop Sing send me letta. I know name, you. You give seed; put in gloun, make garden. Maitai! Maitai! Hop Sing glad. Me glad. Hop Sing brudda-law me.’
‘ What name you? ‘ I asked.
‘Lee Fat. Keep store over there,’ and he pointed down the street. ‘ When you go back Papeari?’
‘Go this morning on motor-bus.’
‘Goo-bye,’ the Chinaman said, and rushed away as though he had not a moment to lose. I was surprised at the abrupt leave-taking and stood looking after him, hardly knowing what to make of the encounter, touched at thought of this odd little man chasing me down the street to thank me for the trifling favor I had done his brotherin-law.
I sat on a bench near the post office to wait for the motor-bus. ‘The Beachcombers’ Bench’ it was called, for it was usually occupied on steamer day by waifs and strays from all parts of the world, men who sat there waiting for the distribution of the monthly mail, always expecting letters containing money and nearly always disappointed. ‘I’m in the same boat now,’ I thought. ‘Three months hence I’ll be sitting here nursing the same forlorn hope.’ It was possible, of course, that my manuscript would sell at once, but, remembering past experiences, I knew it would be foolish to count on it. Well, I still had twenty-one francs, and I should have nine left after paying my bus fare. Certainly I should not starve, with land crabs and mape nuts to eat, and meanwhile I should work at the journalistic trade as never before, sending manuscripts north by every steamer as long as I had money for postage. Having made this resolve, I put my worries aside.
It was nearly midday when I arrived at Papeari. While I was paying my fare to the driver, the boy who attended to the distribution of parcels put a box down beside me.
‘You ‘ve made a mistake,’ I said. ‘That is n’t mine.’
‘Yes it is,’ he replied.
‘No, no. I did n’t have a box and I’ve ordered nothing from town.’
He insisted, however, that it was mine. A Chinaman had brought it just before the bus left the market, he said, and had paid for its carriage to my place. I still thought there was some mistake, but upon prying off the lid I found a card with ‘Lee Fat, No. 118’ printed on it. (Every Chinaman at Tahiti has a number. This is for some governmental purpose; to keep track of them, perhaps.) Under the name was written, in pencil, ‘Mr. Hall, for you.’ The parcel contained the following articles: one two-pound box of New Zealand chocolates, a large paper bag of lichi nuts, one quart of champagne (Louis Roederer), and a beautiful lacquered box with a gold dragon on the lid. In this box were two silk handkerchiefs and a silk pyjama-suit.
I was tempted to open the champagne at once, that I might drink long life and abundant health to Hop Sing and his brother-in-law, Lee Fat, No. 118; but I had no ice, and I knew that I could not drink, alone, a quart of champagne without having a headache the following day. So I tied a string to the bottle and lowered it into the cistern to keep cool. Then I went out to attend to my chicken.
She was gone. The string was still tied to the stake, but she had worked her leg out of the noose and vanished. After a long search I found her under the back steps. I reached in, very cautiously, to grasp her. She pecked at my hand and, as I drew her forth, gave utterance to the indignant squawks common to hens when they are sitting. Surely enough, she had laid an egg and was sitting on it; evidently she had been ready to sit when Hop Sing brought her to me. The egg under her was unfertilized, of course, so I took that out. Then I made her a nest of excelsior out of Lee Fat’s box, and placed in it the five eggs remaining of Hop Sing’s gift. The hen settled down on them with contented duckings and, when comfortable, closed her eyes as much as to say, ‘Now then, all I ask is to be fed from time to time, and twenty-one days hence we shall see what we shall see.’
It seems to me now that the definite upward trend in the graph of my fortunes began that afternoon when I started land-crab fishing. The results not only flattered my vanity — sadly in need of flattery — but gave me renewed confidence. ‘At last,’ I thought, ‘I am a success at something.’ I could not eat a tenth of the crabs I had caught, so I made a pen of stakes set closely together and deeply into the ground, and turned the surplus loose inside it. They immediately dug new holes for themselves, but this did not disturb me, for I knew I could easily catch them again. I fished all over my two-acre estate with such success that I had to enlarge the pen several times, and even then, and despite the fact that some of the crabs dug their way out, there were so many inside that the ground was honeycombed with their burrows. It occurred to me that by feeding them regularly on hibiscus leaves and blossoms I might add to their size and increase the delicacy of their flavor. The experiment was highly successful. The crabs thrived upon the regular and abundant food and I thrived upon them. At the time of Hop Sing’s visit, what through worry and an uncongenial diet, I was very thin, but within six weeks I had gained fourteen pounds.
Meanwhile, upon the appointed day, my hen stepped out of her nest, followed by five bits of animated fluff. I was quite as proud of them as she was, and doubtless took more credit to myself on that occasion than the facts warranted. I fed both the hen and her brood on a mixture of roasted land-crabs and mapé nuts, and never have I seen chickens grow so rapidly.
It may seem incredible that my bottle of champagne should have remained unbroached during this time, but such is the case. In my interest in crab and chicken farming I had quite forgotten it; but one day, when my landlord was gathering coconuts in a near-by grove, I asked him to share it with me. He was more than willing, and at the first glass his habitually reserved attitude toward me altered at once. I then learned the reason for this attitude. He told me that his last tenant, an Australian, had not only eaten bananas and coconuts to which he had no right, but had gone away without paying his rent. We drank confusion to this scurvy tenant wherever he might be. Several of my landlord’s children had accompanied him to the house, and I shared with them the box of New Zealand chocolates. It was a merry little party, and after much pleasant talk my landlord left me with repeated expressions of good will. The following morning I found on my back verandah a large bunch of bananas and a gunny sack filled with oranges and mangoes, and thereafter I was never without these delicious fruits, gifts from my landlord and his family. Not infrequently Mata, his wife, would send me, by one of the children, baked fish, breadfruit, and mountain plantain wrapped in green leaves, fresh from her native oven. I was overwhelmed with benefits and remembered with deep gratitude that I owed them all to Hop Sing.
His garden was flourishing; all of the seeds I had given him had sprouted and gave promise of a rich harvest under his patient, ceaseless care. He was always at work, and so too was Mrs. Sing, despite the demands on her time made by three small children. Sometimes of a late afternoon I walked down to their place, and usually found Mrs. Sing in a shed back of the house, where she sorted and cleaned bunches of lettuce and string beans for the market. All of her members were busy at once. She rocked the smallest baby, which hung in a little cradle from a rafter, by means of a cord attached to her foot. Every now and then she would pull another cord which hung just above her head, and this one ran, by a system of pulleys, to the garden, where there was a sort of jumpingjack scarecrow to frighten away the mynah birds; and meanwhile the fresh vegetables got themselves cleaned and deftly packed in little baskets. Sing was a baker as well as a gardener, and four times per week, after his long day’s toil, he made the rounds of the district selling crisp loaves and pineapple tarts to the native population. Invariably, during these excursions, he left something at my gate, either a tart or a loaf of bread or a basket of vegetables, and to my great relief nothing I could do or say served to dry up his fountain of gratitude for my wretched little gift of seed.
Under these circumstances the weeks passed so pleasantly and quickly that steamer day — the third since the posting of my manuscript — was at hand before I realized it. I walked into town once more and waited on the familiar bench for the distribution of the mail. I waited all through the afternoon until everyone in Papeete and its environs had called for their letters. I waited until the sun was sinking behind the mountains of Moorea and the post office was about to close. Then, summoning all my resolution, I mounted the steps and walked toward the delivery window, saying inwardly, ‘It’s useless to ask; I’m quite certain to be disappointed.’ The girl who presided there went hastily through a small heap of letters.
‘No, there’s nothing for you,’ she said, smiling pleasantly.
I made a ghastly attempt to smile in return and was going toward the door when she called, ‘Oh! Just a moment! What name did you say?’
I repeated it, enunciating the words with the utmost care.
‘Yes, there’s one letter,’ she said. ‘Fifty centimes postage due.’
Having paid this, I had left only a twenty-five-centime piece, the smallest coin in use in French Oceania. But little that mattered. The letter contained a gracious note accepting my manuscript, and a cheque for five hundred dollars!
To those living luxurious lives in the high latitudes five hundred dollars may seem a trifling sum, but to me it was a fortune. With the half of it I could pay the rental for my house and grounds for a period of nearly seven years, and, provided I lived as modestly in the future as I had in the immediate past, the two hundred and fifty remaining would suffice for other expenses for a much longer time. But now, with bright vistas of ease and plenty and peace of mind opening out before me, I found myself perversely considering the possibility of leaving Tahiti. The north-bound steamer to San Francisco was expected in three days’ time, and I fell to considering the varied experience I might now have by virtue of movement and my five hundred dollars. Remembering my past fortunes as a journalist, I knew that it was the part of wisdom to stay here where living was, for the first time, within my means; and yet, if I did not go now, I might never again have enough money for a steamship ticket. I walked the streets long after everyone else was in bed, in an agony of indecision, and at last, as the clock in the cathedral was striking two, the decision was made.
Hop Sing was in town on the day of my departure. He had driven to market with garden produce, and both he and Lee Fat came to see me off. Fat insisted on my accepting a pair of Russian-leather bedroom-slippers and a Chinese fan of blue silk embroidered with gold butterflies. Sing’s parting gift was a basket of tomatoes as large as oranges, and a dozen cars of sweet corn, Golden Bantam — the first fruits from the seeds I had given him. They smiled good-byes as the steamer backed away from the wharf; then I went at once to my cabin, in order that departure from that most beautiful of islands might be a little less poignant. While I was unpacking my bag the cabin steward looked in.
‘You’ve been assigned to the doctor’s table, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s a table for four, but this trip there’s only one other gentleman there besides the doctor.’
‘All right,’ I replied. ‘And by the way, will you please have this corn prepared and served at luncheon? Take a couple of ears for yourself if you care to.’
‘Thank you, sir. I guess the other gentleman at your table will be glad to see this. He ain’t half complained about the food, and to tell you the truth, it’s not what it might be.’
The doctor did not come down for luncheon. I had just seated myself when the other passenger at his table came in. He was a tall, spare man with a drooping white moustache and a bilious complexion. He was dressed in a baggy linen coat, knickerbockers, and low white shoes. He sat down without even a nod in my direction and, adjusting a pair of nose-glasses, picked up the menu card, puffing out his cheeks as he examined it, letting the air escape slowly through his lips. He struck me as being a man hard to please in the matter of food, no matter how good it might be. He was partaking of a fish course of creamed tinned salmon when the steward brought in a platter with ten splendid ears of Golden Bantam corn steaming on it. He gazed at it in astonishment.
‘Take this away,’he said to the steward, pushing the dish of salmon to one side, ‘and bring me a plate.’
Never have I seen a man give himself up to the enjoyment of food with such purely physical abandon. One would have thought he had not eaten for days. When he had finished his third ear he said, ‘Steward, where does this com come from? It’s not on the card.’
‘No, sir, it’s not on the regular bill. It’s a gift to the table from the gentleman sitting opposite you.’
He gave me a quick glance as though he had just then become aware of my presence.
‘Consider yourself thanked, sir,’ he said brusquely.
‘Is this com of your own growing?’
‘Well, yes, in a sense,’ I replied.
He ploughed a hasty furrow along his fourth ear before speaking again. Then he said, ‘What do you mean by “in a sense”? You either raised it or you did n’t, I should think.’
He had a waspish, peppery way of speaking, as though he had been long accustomed to asking whomever whatever he liked with the certainty of a deferential reply. In view of the fact that he was eating my — or rather Hop Sing’s — corn, I felt that he might have made an effort at least to be gracious. Therefore I merely said, as coldly as possible, ‘Oh, you’d have to live at Tahiti to understand that.’ Having finished my luncheon, I rose, bowed slightly, and left him there, still eating com.
Half an hour later I was standing at the rail, aft, watching the peak of Orofena, the highest mountain at Tahiti, disappearing below the horizon. A hand was laid on my arm, and turning I found my luncheon companion.
‘Well, young man,’ he said, ‘one would say you were thinking of jumping overboard.’
‘I have been thinking of it,’ I replied, ‘but it’s too far to swim back now.’
‘You like Tahiti as much as that? Well, I don’t wonder. An island where they grow such delicious com must be a good place to live. I ate six of those ears — finished the lot, in fact.’
‘I’m glad you enjoyed it,’ I replied.
‘See here! You mustn’t mind my manner. I’ve got dyspepsia, and a wayward liver and an enlarged spleen — Lord knows what all else the matter with me. Gives me a sort of jaundiced outlook on life. But I want you to know that I’m grateful. Sweet corn is one of the few tilings I can eat without suffering afterward. Now then, tell me something about your island. I did n’t go ashore. Useless trying to see a place in six hours. It’s only an aggravation.’
I scarcely know how it came about, but within a few minutes I was talking as freely as to an old friend. I told him of the beauty of the islands, of the changing life, of the mingling races, of the strange outcroppings of savagery through the shale of what in those parts is called civilization. Presently I cut off short, thinking he might be bored.
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘Well, you’ve had an interesting time, evidently, and you seem to have made good use of your eyes and ears. Too bad you’re not a journalist. I don’t suppose you’ve ever tried your hand at writing?’
‘Yes, occasionally,’ I replied. ‘In fact, journalism is my trade, if I may be said to have a trade.’
‘Got any of your stuff with you?’
‘A few sketches.’
‘Do you mind letting me see them?’
‘Not at all,’I said; and so, at his suggestion, I brought him a small sheaf of things, six slight papers on various subjects, each of them about two thousand words in length. He settled himself in his deck-chair and adjusted his glasses.
‘Come back in an hour’s time,’ he said, ‘and I ‘ll tell you what I think of them.’
He thought two of them worthless, and curiously enough they were the ones I thought best.
‘But these four are not bad. What do you want for them?’
‘Do you mean you would like to buy them?’
‘Yes, of course. But I forgot to tell you — I’m manager of a newspaper syndicate in America. We can use these sketches. Tropical-island stuff is always popular. It’s all bosh about t he waning of interest in the South Seas. It never wanes and never will as long as life is what it is in America. Well, what do you want for them?’
'0h, I don’t know,’ I said. I was about to add, ‘Would one hundred dollars be too much?’ — meaning one hundred for the four — when he interrupted me.
‘Give you a hundred and fifty each for them. Is that satisfactory?’
I admitted that it was — quite satisfactory.
Adam—‘Our General Ancestor,’ as Milton calls him — was undoubtedly the first husbandman, and a highly successful one during the early part of his career. But, even under the exceptionally favorable conditions prevailing in the Garden of Eden before The Fall, I doubt whether he ever reaped a richer or more varied harvest than I did in my garden at Tahiti. And it all came from a dollar’s worth of seed.