Housekeeping in the South Sea Islands demands a section to itself. All who are uninterested in such matters may, and doubtless will, begin to skip at this point.
Nothing helps the white house-mistress more than the simple standard of living set in most of the islands. It is true that if you are the wife of an important official in the Government House entourage of Fiji, or if you live in civilised, Americanised Honolulu, you will have "to do things" much as they are done at home. But, with these two exceptions, life in that enormous section of the globe known as the South Sea (much of it, by the way, is north of the Line) is simple and unpretentious. In describing the home life of the white settlers in Rarotonga, I describe what is, with small local variations, the life of settlers in almost every group of the Pacific, certainly the life of all in the eight different groups I visited myself, during the years I spent in the South Seas. All over the island world, people dine in the middle of the day, except when entertaining friends, keep few servants or none, and dress and feed simply, because nothing else is possible. the trade cottons in the stores form the material of every lady's dresses, and as for the making, common consent, not to speak of climatic conditions, votes the simplest style the best. Where every stitch of sewing in dress or blouse must be done by the person who is to wear the garment, it is astonishing how soon one grows to regard elaborate tuckings, flouncings, inlayings, with hostility, and how satisfied the eye becomes with the simpler and less "fatigued" lines of the garments fashioned by women who cannot hire a dressmaker for love or money. Evening dress is almost always of the "blouse" description, and in a climate which works universal mischief with delicate white skins, no matter how they are protected, this is no matter for regret. Men buy their drill suits ready-made from the trading stores at a few shillings apiece, and, with a white dinner-jacket and black cummerbund, any one is ready for the gayest of evening entertainments.
The great dress question - being thus resolved into the simple elements of a few cotton frocks for every day, and a muslin or two for best, behold! half the worry of modern life is lifted at a blow. "One must look like other people" - the goad of the toiling townswoman - becomes in the islands. "One looks like other people because one must," and the words are lullaby of rest. After dress, comes servants, in the list of small worries that turn a woman's fair locks grey, and swell the takings of the fashionable hairdressers. Well, it cannot be said that there is no servant trouble in the islands. White servants simply do not exist: they are far too much in demand in America and Australasia to desert either of these domestic paradises for the hotter and lonelier islands. Native girls cannot be had either, since they marry at thirteen or thereabouts. Native boys and men are the only resource. They come to work by the day, and are fed in the house; their wages are generally about five shillings weekly, in the case of a boy, and ten shillings for a man. So far as they go, they are satisfactory enough; they work hard, and are extremely honest, and they are amiability and good-nature. but their scope is decidedly limited they can garden, under direction; they can sweep, fetch wood and water, clean the cooking-stove, husk and open the cocoanuts, wash, peel and boil the vegetables, scrub the verandah floor, clean the knives, wash up dishes, and whiten the shoes. that is about all. The mistress of the house and her daughters, if she is lucky enough to have any, must do all the serious cooking, make the beds, dust, tidy, and lay the table for meals.
One cannot say, however, that health suffers from the necessity of doing a certain amount of housework every day. On the contrary, the white women of the islands are strong and handsome, and do not seem to suffer from the heat nearly so much as the semi-invalid ladies who have come to be regarded as the type of white womanhood in India, that paradise of excellent service and servants. Otherwise, hte islands help out the housekeeper considerably. She can grow as much excellent coffee as the family are likely to want, on a few bushes in the back yard, and peppers only have to be pulled off the nearest wild chili tree. Taro, yam, sweet potato, can be bought from the natives for a trifle, or grows with very little trouble. There will probably be enough breadfruit, mango, orange, lime, and mammee-apple in the grounds of the house to supply all the family needs, and if say one likes chestnuts, they can be picked up under the huge maupei trees along any road. The mammee-apple or paw-paw, mentioned above, is one of the most characteristic fruits of the islands. In Rarotonga, it grows with extraordinary fertility, springing up of itself wherever scrub is cleared away, and coming to maturity in a few months. It is a slender palm-like tree, from ten to thirty feet high, with a quaintly scaled trunk, very like the skin of some great serpent, and a crown of printed, pinnated leaves, raying out fanwise from the cluster of heavy green and yellow fruit that hangs in the centre. the fruit itself is rather like a small melon, though wider at one end than the other. It looks like a melon, too, when cut open, and is both refreshing and satisfying, with a sweetish, musky flavour. The small, soft black seeds in the centre are a sovereign cure for dyspepsia, as is also the fruit itself in a lower degree. the whole of this wonderful tree, indeed, seems to be possessed of digestive powers, for the toughest fowl or piece of salt beef will become tender in a few hours, if wrapped in its leaves. When boiled in the green stage the fruit is undistinguishable from vegetable marrow, and if cooked ripe, with a little lime juice, it can be made into a mock apple pie, much appreciated by settlers in a land where the typical British fruit cannot be grown.
Cooking bananas are much used, and grow wild in the lands of the natives, who sell them for a trifle. every house has its own patch of eating bananas of many kinds, and orange-trees are almost sure to be there as well. there is always a huge bunch of bananas, and taro or three great palm-leaf baskets of oranges, on the verandah of every house, and the inmates consume them both in uncounted numbers all day. Pineapples are easily raised in the little bit of garden, or they can be bought for a penny a piece. A vanilla vine will probably spread its beautiful thick leaves over the fence and hang out, in due season, a store of pods for flavouring one in the kitchens. Arrowroot may be grown or bought - a big basket sells for sixpence, and it has no more to do with the arrowroot of the grocer's shop at home, than a real seal mantle worth three figures has to do with a two guineas "electric." Limes grow wild everywhere, and the island housewife makes full use of them. they clean her floors, her tables, her enamelled ware, stained table linen, or marked clothing; they wash her hair delightfully, and take the sunburn off her face and hands; they make the best of "long drinks," and the daintiest of cake flavouring, they are squeezed into every fruit salad, and over every stew; they take the place of vinegar, if the island stores run low; in truth, they are used for almost every purpose of domestic-cooking, cleaning, or chemistry.
Cabbage of an excellent kind grows wild in a few islands. Tomatoes, small but excellent in flavour, are found on the borders of the seashore, in many. Nearly all English vegetables are grown by the white settlers with extremely little trouble. The egg-plant, known in England as a greenhouse ornament, here thrives splendidly in gardens, and instead of the little plum-like fruit of the British plant, produces a great purple globe as big as a fine marrow, which resembles fried eggs very closely, if sliced and cooked in a pan. but in truth there is no limit to the richness and generosity of the island soil. Were it not for the troublesome item of butcher's meat, housekeeping in the Pacific would be marvellously cheap and easy. that, however, is the housekeeper's bugbear. Outside of Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and Honolulu, fresh beef is not be had at all, and fresh mutton not often. In very many islands tinned meat and fowls are the only resource; and the lady of the house must tax her ingenuity to the utmost to find ways of disguising the inevitable "tin" Curry, stew, pie, mince; mince pie, stew, curry - so runs the monotonous programme in most houses; and disguise it as one may, the trail of the tine is over it all.
It is a great day in the islands when turtle are caught. They are not common in the groups frequented by white people, since they prefer the lonely, barren atolls where the soil is dry and infertile; but now and then a "school" is found, and a big catch made. then there is rejoicing in the land, and cooking in every house of an uncommonly liberal and elaborate kind. The south Sea turtle are enormous, often weighing as much as seven or eight hundred pounds, and occasionally touching the thousand. Such a monster as this would easily feed a large household for a week - but alas, in tropical climate fresh meat, even when scalded, will not keep more than three days; so a good deal is usually wasted. The famous turtle soup is made from the flippers, which are full of gelatine; and it may safely be assumed that no London alderman fed on dying creatures carried half across the world has ever tasted soup so good as that made from a fine healthy turtle just out of the sea. The grass-green fat of the upper shell is used to put in the soup, and to fry the thick steaks of turtle beef, also to baste the big roast of turtle meat that is generally a feature of a turtle dinner. The eggs (of which there will probably be a large bucketful at least) are fried in green fat, and eaten as they are, shell-less, crisp and golden, tasting rather like roast chestnut. the tripe is cooked like ordinary tripe; the liver is fried. An excellent dinner, but surely an indigestible one? By no means. It is a curious property of this-turtle meat that a much larger quantity of it can be eaten than of any ordinary butcher's meat, without any sense of repletion or after ill effects. this is the great dainty of the South Sea islands, and if to a turtle dinner be added bisque soup made from mountain river crayfish, a real island fruit salad, with lime juice and cocoanut cream, a freshly plucked pineapple, a dish of mangoes, granadillas, and a cup of island-grown coffee, not the Carlton or the Savoy could do better for a travelling prince.
All South Sea Island "white" houses are more or less alike, being built of coral concrete (occasionally of wood) and fitted with imported windows and doors. The verandah is the great feature of the building; for there the family will probably spend most of their time, reading, smoking, receiving callers, or simply lounging in long chairs and listening to the monotonous singing of the natives in the thatched reed houses near at hand. Splendid climbing plants wreathe the pillars and sloping roofs of these verandahs - stephanotis, Bougainvillea, and countless gay tropical flowers whose ugly Lain names only an accomplished botanist could remember. Gardenias, gorgeous white trumpet likes, tall bushes of begonia; pink, yellow and scarlet hibiscus, crimson poinsettia, delicate eucharis lilies, run riot about the grounds, and orange and lemon flowers fill the air with an exquisite perfume. Within the high-pitched, deep, church-like roof rises above a range of partition walls separating the different rooms, but giving a common air supply to all, since the dividing walls are not more than ten or twelve feet high. there are no secrets in an island house; what any one says at one end can b heard at the other, and a light burning late in anybody's bedroom keeps all the rest awake. In the older houses the roof is of "rau" or plaited pandanus thatch, of a soft brown tone, delightfully cool and exceedingly picturesque. the rafters, in such a house, will be almost black with age, and beautifully latticed and patterned with finely plaited "sinnet" (cocoanut fibre). More modern houses have corrugated iron roofs, generally painted red. the water supply from these roofs is of some importance, and they are less expense and trouble than the thatch; but the latter is incomparably the more picturesque, and a good deal the cooler as well.
The floor is always covered with native matting (pandanus leaf, split and plaited). this is of a pleasant tan colour in tone, and very cool and clean. the furniture is generally basket and bamboo, with a native "tappa" cloth (of which I shall have more to say later on) on the table. there are sure to be groups of old native weapons on the walls - lances and spears and clubs and arrows - and a few island fans, arranged in trophies, and garlanded, with chains of shells. On the steps of the verandah one usually finds a fern or two, planted in big white clam-shells off the reef, and there may be others in the drawing-room. A piano is a great luxury; the island climate is not kind to pianos. Harmoniums are more common. The bedrooms may have ordinary beds imported from Auckland or they may have (what is quite as good) native bedsteads made of ironwood, laced across with sinnet, and covered with soft pandanus leaf mats, over which the under sheet is laid. Unless it is the cool season there will not be a blanket. Mosquito curtains, of course, protect each bed. All windows and doors are wide open, day or night, but season or cool.
The South Sea housekeeper has a few insect plagues to fight against, but not nearly so many as her sister in India or Jamaica. The ants eat everything that is not hung or covered up. enormous hornets, in the cool season, lurk about ceilings, bookcases and cupboards, sleepy, cross, and ready to dart a fearful sting, if accidentally touched. Cockroaches are destructive at all times. Fleas do not trouble much, and flies are only annoying in a few islands. Mosquitoes are troublesome in the hot season, but give little annoyance at other times. Centipedes and scorpions exist, but are not common. They do come into houses occasionally, and (being very poisonous, though not deadly) frighten the inmates quite as much as the inmates undoubtedly frighten them. It is the rarest possible thing, however, to hear of a European being bitten. Education is not an unsolvable problem in the islands, since quite a large number of groups possess convent schools, where even such extras as music, languages, and fancy needlework can be taught.
On the whole, the difficulties of housekeeping are somewhat less than at home, and the cost certainly much smaller. It is true that a good many tinned stuffs are used, and tinned food is always dear; but the cheapness of everything that the soil produces makes up that difference, and the simple standard of living swings the balance still further to the right side. I am of opinion myself that white families would benefit both in comfort and in pocket by adopting the native style of house, which is, as already mentioned, a structure of small net sticks or poles set very closely and strongly, but not filled in. The roof is always thatched. In such a house, the air circulates freely without any draught, and there is a pleasant, diffused light during the daytime. At night, when native houses are more or less transparent, the privacy-loving white can draw thin cotton curtain across his walls until the lights are put out.
One such house, built for and used by white people, was conspicuous for the simple beauty of the design. The interior was very plainly furnished with a few bamboo tables and chairs, and a light stretcher bed or two. Its curtains were of printed muslin from the store, and its floor was nothing but white coral sand brought from the beach. The house stood sheltered by tall palms, and the sea was so near that all day one could watch the soft sparkle of the creaming surf through the half-transparent walls, and all night long one slept to the matchless lullaby of the humming reef.
(Windows blurred with beating mud, grey London roaring by in the rain; haggard faces, and murky summer, and the snake of custom dipping stranglingly about the free man's throat - O Island wanderer, back in the weary North, does your sea-bird's heart fly swift from these to those, and sicken for the lands where you must go no more?)
* * * * * * * * *
Rarotonga is full of funny things, if one knows where to look for them. One would not suppose that the tombs of the natives were a likely spot. yet I would defy the most serious of graveyard moralisers to count over the list of things that the Rarotongan buries in the bombs of his departed relatives, without feeling his seriousness badly shaken. Little household ornaments belonging to the deceased are pathetic, certainly; so, in a lesser degree, are the Sunday clothes that often accompany their wearer on the long journey. but what is one to say of bicycles, Japanned bedsteads, and even pianos? All these things have been buried by Rarotongans in the big concreted tombs that crop up sociably along the edges of the public road every here and there. The Pinao, I must add, was dug up again, by order of an indignant missionary, who gave the disconsolate mourners a good lecture on heathenistic practices, and the necessity of drawing the line somewhere.
Native names are sometimes exceedingly funny to the perverted white mind, although to the owners they may be dignified poetic, and even beautiful. Once young coffee-coloured lady of my acquaintance had been named (in Rarotongsn) "Cup-of-Tea." Another was "Box-with-a-Hole-in-It" -another "Tin-of-Meat." I should suppose, from my knowledge of their religious training, that each of these ladies possessed a godly scripture name of her own, properly bestowed on her at her proper baptism. But in the Cook Islands, the name a native is christened by, and the name he or she goes by, are almost always distinct, which is certainly confusing. Worse confusion still is caused by the old habit of changing these commonly accepted names on any great occasion that seems to need special commemoration. The natives themselves never seem to become puzzled over all these name-changes, but so much can hardly be said of the whites. It is at the least, perplexing to employ a gardener called Zebedee by the missionaries, Thunderstorm by his friends, and Tin roof by the relatives -like the notable character in The Hunting of the Snark,
But it is even worse to be informed - saome day, when you go to look after Zebedee-Thunderstorm-Tin roof down in the village, and ask why he has not turned up to weed your pineapples - that his nmae isn't any of the three, but "Barbed Wire," becaue he has just finished putting up a fence of barbed wire round the grave of his boy who died last year, and has resolved to call himself henceforth, "Barbed Wire," in memory of his son! Native notions about European clothes often provide a "feast of fun for the whites, who set the copies in dress. Where a lace-trimmed garment of mine, usually reserved for private wear under the shades of night and the shelter of a quilt and sheet, went to Sunday morning church as a best dress in full daylight, on the person of the laundress who had been entrusted with my clothes for the wash, the funny side of the affair was so much the more conspicuous, that the borrower never got the reproof she certainly ought to have had. And when a certain flower toque, made of poppies (a blossom unknown to the Pacific) first drove the women of the island half-distracted with excitement, and then left to thirty-six native ladies appearing simultaneously at a dance in Makea's grounds, wearing most excellent copies of my Paris model, done in double scarlet hibiscus from the bush, the natural outrage to my feelings (which every woman who has ever owned a "model" will understand) was quite swallowed up in the intense amusement that the incident caused to everybody on the grounds.
I was unfortunate enough to be away on the island schooner when a great wedding took place - the nuptials of one of the queen's nieces - and so missed the finest display of native dress and custom that had occurred during the whole year. The bride, I heard, wore fourteen silk dresses - not all at once, but one after the other, changing her dress again and again during the reception that followed the wedding ceremony in the mission church, until she almost made the white spectators giddy. The presents were "numerous and costly" from the guests to the bride, and from the bride to the guests, for it is Rarotongan custom to give presents to the people who come to your wedding; a fashion that would considerably alleviate the lot of the weary wedding guest, if only it could be introduced over here. The gifts for the bride were carried in by the givers, and flung down in a heap one by one, each being duly announced by the person making the present, who showed no false modesty in describing his contribution. "Here's twenty yards of the most beautiful print for Mata (the bride), from Erri Puno!" "Here's three baskets of arrowroot, the best you ever saw, for Mata from Taoua." "here's eighteen-pence for Mata and Tamueli from Ruru," flinging the coins loudly into the china plate. So the procession went on, until the gifts were all bestowed, the bride meanwhile standing behind a kind of counter, and rapidly handing out rolls of stuff, tins of food, ribbons, gimeracks of various kinds, to her guests as they passed by. When all is added up, the amusement seems to be about all that any one really clears out of the whole proceeding.
The cook Islanders are among the most musical of Pacific races. They have no musical instruments, unless "trade" mouth-organs, accordions, and jew's haps may be classed as such, but they need none, in their choral singing, which is indescribably grand and impressive. here as elsewhere in the islands, one travels distinctly the influence of the two dominant sounds of the island world - the low droning of the reef, and the high soft murmur of the trade wind in the palms. The boom of the breakers finds a marvellously close echo in the splendid volume of the men's voices, which are bass for the most part, and very much more powerful and sonorous than anything one hears in the country of the "superior" race. The women's voices are somewhat shrill, but they sound well enough as one usually hears them, wandering wildly in and out of the massive harmonies of the basses. A Philharmonic conductor from the isles of the North would surely think himself in heaven, if suddenly transported to these southern isles of melody and song. The Pacific native is born with harmony in his throat, and time in his very pulses. It is as natural to him to sing as to breathe; and he simply cannot go out of time if he tries. solo singing does not attract him at all; music is above all things a social function, in his opinion, and if he can get a few others - or better still, a few more others - to sit down with him on the ground, and begin a chorus, he is happy for hours, and so are they.
To the Pacific traveller, this endless chanting is as much a part of the island atmosphere as the palms and the reef and the snowy, coral strand themselves. One comes, in time, to notice it hardly more than the choral song of beating breaker and long trade wind, to which it is so wonderfully akin. But at the first, wonder is continually awakened by the incomparable volume of the voices, and the curious booming sound - like the echo that follows the striking of some gigantic bell - which characterises the bass register of island men's singing. The swing and entrain of the whole performance are intoxicating - the chorus, be it tenor a thousand voices, sweeps onward as resistlessly as a cataract, and the beat of the measure is like the pulse of Father Time himself. there are several parts as a rule, but they wander in and out of one another at will, and every now and then a single voice will break away and embroider a little improvisation upon the melody that is like a sudden scatter of spray from the crest of a rolling breaker. then the chorus takes it up and answers it, and the whole mass of the voices hurls itself upon the tune like the breaker falling and bursting upon the shore.
It is very wonderful, and very lovely; yet there are times - at one in the morning, let us say, when the moon has crept round from one side of the mosquito curtain to the other since one lay down, and the hats have finished quarrelling and gone home, and the comparative chill of the small hours is frosting the great green flags of the bananas outside the window with glimmering dew - when the white traveller, musical or unmusical, may turn over on an uneasy couch, and curse the native love of melody, wondering the while if the people in the little brown houses down the road ever sleep at all?
What are the subjects of the songs? that is more than the natives themselves can tell you, very often, and certainly much more than a wondering traveller, here to-day and gone next month, could say. Many of the chants are traditional, so old that the customs they refer to are not half remembered, and full of words that hve passed out of one. A good number now-a-days are religious, consisting of hymns and psalms taught by the missionaries, and improved on, as to harmony and setting, by the native. The island love of choral singing must be an immense assistance to the church services, since it turns these latter into a treat, instead of a mere duty, and the native can never get enough church, so long as there is plenty of singing for him to do. Some of the secular songs are understood to refer to the deeds of ancestors; some are amatory; some - and those the most easily understood by white people who know the native languages - are in the nature of a kind of society journal, recording the important events of the last few days, and making comments, often of a very free nature, on friends and enemies, and the white people of the island. Most of these latter are not good enough scholars to understand the chants, even if they can talk a little native, which is just as well, when oratorios of this kind are to be heard every evening among the "rau" roofed huts :-
A resident who really understood the natives and their music once or twice translated choruses for me that were quite as personal as the above. I have never since then wondered, as I used to wonder, where on earth the merry peasants of opera, with their extraordinary knowledge of the principals' affairs, and their tireless energy in singing about them, were originally sketched.
(Scholars will probably trace a resemblance to the Greek chorus here. I leave it to them to work out the wherefore, which makes me giddy even to think of, considering the geographical elements involved in the problem.) But now enough of Rarotonga, for the schooner Duchess is waiting to carry me away to the other islands of the group, and, after many thousands of miles travelled by steamer upon "all the seas of all the world," I am at last to learn what going to sea really is.
* * * * * * * * * *
OTHER ISLANDS OF THE COOK ISLANDS GROUP
The schooner Duchess was in at last.
We were almost growing anxious about her in Rarotonga - almost not quite; for after all, she was only a fortnight overdue, and that is not much for an island schooner, even when she is run by white officers. when the easy-going native runs her, no one ever knows when she will leave any port, and no one would venture to predict that she will ever arrive at all. there are generally a good many native-owned schooners about the South-Easter Pacific, but, though all the numbers keep up, the identity varies, and if you return after a few years and ask for the ships you used to know, the answer will be,
Of their bones are coral made.
I have not space to tell you here of the native schooner that started from one of the cook Islands, not so very long ago, to visit another island less than two hundred miles away, but, because of the wild and weird navigation of her owners, went instead of somewhere over a thousand miles off; toured half the Pacific; stayed away six months; and finally came back to her own little island by a happy chance, without ever having reached the place she set out for after all. But it has a good deal of local colour in it. the Duchess, however, was not a native schooner, being owned by a British captain, mate, and boatswain, assisted by eight island seamen. there was, therefore, a reasonable prospect of getting somewhere, sometime, if I travelled in her; so I took my passage, and, for the first time, literally "sailed away" - to see the outer islands of the Cook Group, and later on, solitary Savage Island, Penrhyn, Malden, Rakahanga, and Manahiki.
For more than four months afterwards, with a single break, the little Duchess of 175 tons was my home. Little she seemed at first, but before long she assumed the proportions of quite a majestic vessel. there was no schooner in those waters that could touch her, either for speed, size, or (alas?) for pitching and rolling, in any and every weather. Her ninety-five foot masts made a brave show, which clothed with shining canvas; her white hull, with its scarlet encircling band, and the sun-coloured copper glimmering at the water-line stood out splendidly on the blazing blue of the great Pacific. "A three-masted topsail schooner" was her official designation. The unofficial names she was called in a calm, when the great Pacific swell brought out her full rolling powers, are best left unreported.
I cannot honestly advise the elderly round-the-world-tourist, doting the Pacific in orthodox style, to desert steam for sail, and try the experience of voyaging "off the track" among the islands never visited by liners. but the true traveller, who wanders for the joy of wandering, and is not afraid or unwilling to "rough it" a good deal, will find a sailing trip in the Pacific among the most fascinating of experiences. Beyond the radius of the belching funnel a great peace reigns; an absence of time, a pleasant carelessness about all the weighty and tiresome things that may be happening outside the magic circle of still blue ocean. there is no "let-her-slide" spirit in the whole world to compare with that which blossoms spontaneously on the sun-white decks of a Pacific schooner . Looking back upon all the island boats that I have known, I may say that there was not so much discipline among the lot as would have run a single cross-channel boat at home, that every one was satisfied if the officers refrained from "jamborees" between ports if some one was sometimes at the wheel, and if the native crew knew enough of the ropes to work the ship reasonably well, in the intervals of line-fishing and chorus-singing. And in one and all, whatever might happen to passengers, cargo, ship, or crew, "take things as they come," was the grand general rule.
* * * * * * * * *
"This is your cabin," said the cheerful little pirate of a captain. He was celebrated as the "hardest case" in the South Pacific, and looked not quite unworthy of his reputation, though he was dressed as if for bond Street in the afternoon, and mannered (on that occasion) as if for an evening party. What I wanted to say was "Good God!" What I did say was: "Oh, really! very nice indeed." For I saw at once that I must lie, and it seemed as well to obtain the fullest possible advantage from the sin. There was no use mincing words, or morals, in such a case. The cabin had a floor exactly the size of my smallest flat box, which filled it so neatly that I had to stand on the lid all the time I was in my room. It had a bunk about as large as a tight fit in coffins, and a small parrot perch at one side, which was not meant for parrots, but for me, to perch on, if I wanted to lace my boots without committing suicide when the ship was rolling. On the perch stood a tin basin, to do duty as a washstand. There was a biscuit-tin full of water underneath. This was all that the cabin contained, except smells. the latter, however, crowded it to its fullest capacity. It had some mysterious communication with the hold, which performed it strongly with the oppressive, oily stench of ancient copra, and it had also a small door leading into the companion that went down to the engine-hole (one could not call it a room), in which lived the tiny oil engine that was supposed to start instantaneously, and work us out of danger, in case of any sudden need. (I say supposed, because --- But that comes after.)
This engine-hole had a smell of its own, a good deal stronger than the engine (but that is not saying much)-- compounded of dirt, bilge-water, and benzolene. The smell joined in a sort of chorus with the copra odour of the hold, and both were picked out and accentuated by a sharp note of cockroach. It was the most symphonic odour that I had ever encountered. As for the port, that, I saw, would be screwed down most of the time owing to the position of the cabin, low down on the main deck. "Very nice," I repeated, smiling a smile of which I am proud to this day. "Such a dear little cabin!" "I'm glad you like it," said the captain, evidently relived. "You see, there's four Government officials coming round this trip, and that takes our only other cabin. I chucked the bo'sun out of this; he's sleeping anywhere. Anything else you'd like?" he continued, looking at the biscuit-tin and the shiny basin with so much satisfaction that I guessed at once they were a startling novelty - the bo'sun having probably performed his toilet on deck. "We don't have lady passengers on these trips, as we aren't a Union liner exactly, but we're always ready to do what we can to please every one."
"I want first of all a new mattress, and sheets that haven't been washed in salt water, and then I want some air and light, and thirty or forty cubic feet more space, and I think, a new cabin, and I'm almost sure, another ship," I said to myself. Aloud I added: "Nothing whatever, thank you: it is charming," and then I went in and shut the door, and sat down on my bunk, and said things, that would not have passed muster in a Sunday-School, for quite ten minutes. What I had expected I don't know. Something in the Clark Russell line, I fear - a sparkling little sea-parlour, smelling of rope and brine, looking out on a deck "as white as a peeled almond," and fitted with stern windows that overhung half the horizon. It was borne in upon me, as I sat there among the smells and ants and beetles, that I was in for something as un-Clark-Russelly as possible. "Well," I thought." it will at least be all the newer. And there is certainly no getting out of it." So we spread our white wings, and fluttered away like a great sea-butterfly, from underneath the green and purple peaks of Rarotonga, far out on the wide Pacific. And thereupon because the rollers rolled, and the ship was small, I went into my cabin, and for two days, like the heroine of an Early Victorian romance, "closed my eyes, and knew no more."
On the third day I was better, and in the afternoon Mitiaro, one of the outer Cook Islands rose on the horizon. by three o'clock our boat had landed us - the official party, the captain, and myself - on a beach of foam-white coral sand, crowded with laughing, excited natives, all intensely eager to see the "wahine papa," or foreign woman. white men - traders, missionaries, the Resident commissioner of the group - had visited the island now and again, but never a white women before; and though many had been away and seen such wonders, more had not. The officials went away to hod a court of justice; the captain and myself, before we had walked half across the beach, being captured by an excited band of jolly brown men and women, all in their Sunday best shirts and pareos, and long trailing towns. They seized us by our elbows, and literally ran us up to the house of the principal chief, singing triumphantly. Along the neatest of coral sand paths we went, among groves of palm and banana, up to a real native house, built with a high "rau" roof, and airy birdcage walls. About half the island was collected here, drinking cocoanuts, eating bananas, staring, talking, laughing. In spite of their excitement, however, they were exceedingly courteous, offering me the best seat in the house - a real European chair, used as a sort of throne by the chief himself - fanning myself and my guide industriously as we sat, pressing everything outside in the house on us, and doing their best, bare-footed brown savages as they were, to make us enjoy our visit.
All islanders are not courteous and considerate, but the huge majority certainly are. You shall look many a day and many a week among the sea-countries of the Pacific, before you meet with as much rudeness, selfishness, or unkindness, as you may meet any day without looking at all, on any railway platform of any town of civilised white England. And not from one end of the South Seas to the other, shall you hear anything like the harsh, loud, unmusical voice of the dominant race, in a native mouth. Soft and gentle always is the island speech, musical and kind - the speech of a race that knows neither hurry nor greed, and for whom the days are long and sweet, and "always afternoon."
When we went out to see the island, it was at the head of a gay procession of men, women, and children, singing ceaselessly, in loud metallic chants and choruses. Shy of the strange white apparition at first, the women grew bolder by degrees, and hung long necklaces of flowers and leaves and scented berries around my neck. They took my hat away, and returned it covered with feathery reva-reva plumes, made from the inner crown of the palm-tree. they produced a native dancing kilt, like a little crinoline, made of arrowroot fibre, dyed pink, and tied it round my waist, over my tailor skirt, explaining the white (through the captain, who interpreted), that the knot of the girdle was fastened in such a way as to cast a spell on me, and that I should inevitably be obliged to return to the island. (it is perhaps worthy of note that I did, though at the time of my first visit there seemed no chance of the ship calling again.) Decked out after this fashion, I had a sueei's fou on my return to the schooner, and was greeted with howls of delight on the part of my fellow-passengers, who had managed to escape adornment, being less of a novelty. It was a course impossible to remove the ornaments without offending the givers.
More houses, and more hosts, standing like Lewis Carroll's crocodile on their thresholds, to welcome me in "with gently smiling jaws." We visited till we were tired of visiting and then strolled about the town. Cool, fresh, and clean are the houses of little Mitiaro, dotted about its three miles' length. Their high deep-gabled roofs of plaited pandanus leaf keep out the heat of the staring sun; through their walls of smoothed and fitted canes the sea-wind blows and the green lagoon gleams dimly; the snowy coral pebbles that carpet all the floor reflect a softly pleasant light into the dusk, unwindowed dwelling. Outside, the palm-trees rustle endlessly, and the surf sings on the reef the long, low, perilous sweet song of the dreamy south Sea world - the song that has lured so many away into these lonely coral lands, to remember their Northern loves and homes no more - the song that, once heard, will whisper through the inmost chambers of the heart, across the years, and across the world till death.
Yet - why not?
Why not? the thought followed me as ceaselessly as the trampling of the surf (now, in the open, loud and triumphant, like the galloping of a victorious army) while I wandered over the little island, up and down the coral sand paths that led through groves of feathery ironwood, through quaintly regular, low, rich green shrubberies, starred with pale pink blossoms; among wild grey pinnacles of fantastic rock, clothed in trailing vines - always towards the open sky and the limitless blue sea. Why not? In England, even yet,
We are not cotton-spinners all,
nor are we all old, blood-chilled by the frost of conventionality, dyed ingrain with the conviction that there is nothing but vagabondage and ne'er-do-well-ism away from the ring of the professions, or an office desk in the E.C. district. For the young and adventurous, the South Seas hold as fair prospects as any other semi-civilised portion of the globe. For those who have seen and have lived, and are wearied to death of the life and cities and competition, the island world offers remoteness, beauty, rest, and peace, unmatched in the round of the swinging earth. Ad to all alike it offers that most savoury morsel of life's banquet - freedom. Freedom and a biscuit taste better to many a young Ango-Saxon than stalled ox seasoned with the bitter herbs of dependence; but the one is always at hand, and the other very far away. Well, the gulf can be spanned; but he who cannot do the spanning, and must long and dream unsatisfied all his life, had best take comfort; it had not been for his good. The islands are for the man of resource; again, of resource; and more more, of resource. Look among the lowest huts of the lowest quarters that cling to towns in the big islands, and there, gone native, and lost to his face, you shall find the man who was an excellent fellow - once - but who in emergency or difficulty, "didn't know what to do."
If there is a lesson in the above, he who needs it will find it.
Mitiaro is the island, already referred to, where dried bananas are prepared. The natives make u their fruit in this way for market, because steamers never call, and sailing vessels only come at long and irregular intervals. A very small quantity goes down in this way to Auckland, and I heard, in a general way, that there were supposed to be one or two other islands here and there about the Pacific, where the same trade was carried on. One cannot, however, buy preserved bananas in the colonies, unless by a special chance, so the purchasing public knows nothing of them, and is unaware what it misses. In the opinion of most who have tried them, the fruit, dried and compressed in the Mitiaro way, is superior to dried figs. It is not only a substitute for fresh bananas, but a dainty in itself. the whaling ships pick up an occasional consignment in out-of-the-way places, and are therefore familiar with them, but one never sees them on a steamer. There may be useful hints, for intending settlers, in those stray facts.
We lay over-night at Mitiaro, and got off in the morning. Aitutaki was our next place of call, and we reached it in about a day. It is, next to Rarotonga, the most important island of the group, possessing a large mission station, a Government agent, and a post-office. It enjoys a call once a month from the Union steamer, and is therefore a much more sophisticated place than Mitiaro. In size, it is inferior to Rarotonga and Atiu, being only seven square miles in extent. Its population is officially returned as 1,170. these are almost all natives, the white population including only the government agent, two or three missionaries, and a couple of traders. It is bright morning when we make Aitutaki, and the sea is so vividly blue, as we push off in the boat, that I wonder my fingers do not come out sapphire-coloured when I dip them in. And I think, as the eight brown arms pull us vigorously shoreward, that no one in the temperate climes knows, or ever can know, what these sea-colours of the tropics are like, because the North has no words that express them. How, indeed, should it have?
We are rowing, as fast as we can go, towards a great white ruffle of foam ruled like a line across the blue, blue sea. Inside this line thee lies, to all appearance, an immense raised plain of green jade or aquamarine, with a palmy, plumy island, cinctured by a pearly beach, far away in the middle. Other islands smaller and farther away, stand out upon the surface of this strange green circle here and there, all enclosed within the magic ring of tumbling foam, more than five miles across, that sets them apart from the wide blue sea. It is only a lagoon of atoll formation, but it looks like a piece of enamelled jewel work, done by the hand of some ocean giant, so great that the huge sea-serpent itself should be only a bracelet for the arm. The raised appearance of the lagoon is one of the strangest things I have yet seen, though it is merely an optical delusion, created by contrast in colour. We are fortunate too, in seeing what every one does and see - a distinct green shade in the few white clouds that overhang the surface of the lagoon. Her in Aitutaki a great part of the sky is sometimes coloured green by the reflections from the water, and it is a sight worth witnessing.
Through an opening in the reef we enter - the boatmen pulling hard against the outward rush of the tide, which runs here like a cataract at times - and glide easily across the mile or so of shallow water that lies between us and the shore. One or two splendid whale-boats pass us, manned by native crews, and the other passengers tell me that these boats are all made by the Aitutakians themselves, who are excellent builders. there is a very decent little wharf to land on, and of course, the usual excited, decorated crowd to receive us, and follow us about. I am getting quite used now to going round at the head of a continual procession, to being hung over with chains of flowers and berries, and ceaselessly fed with bananas and cocoanuts, so the crowd does not interfere with my enjoyment of the new island. We are going to stop a day or two here, and there will be time to see everything.
When you sleep as a rule in a bunk possessing every attribute of a coffin (except the restfulness which one is led to expect in a bed of that nature), you do not require much pressing to accept an invitation to "dine and sleep" on shore. Tau Ariki (which means Chieftainess, or Countess, or Duchess, Tau) lives in 'Aitutaki, and she had met me in Rarotonga, so she sent me a hearty invitation to spend the night at her house, and I accepted it. Tau is not by any means as great a personage as Makea, or even as great as Tinomana, the lesser queen. she is an Ariki all the same, however, and owns a good deal of land in Aitutaki. Also, she is gloriously married to a white ex-schooner mate who can teach even the Aitutakians something about boat-building, and she is travelled and finished, having been a trip to Auckland - the ambition of every Cook Islander. So Tau Ariki is a person of importance in her own small circle, and was allowed by the natives of the town to have the undoubted first right to entertain the white woman.
Tau's house, in the middle of the rambling jungly, green street of the little town, proved to be a wooden bungalow with a verandah and a tin roof, very ugly but very fine to native eyes. there were tables and chairs to the "parlour" - and the inevitable boiled fowl that takes the place of the fatted calf, in pacific cookery, was served up on a china plate. A rich woman, Tau, and one who knew how the "tangata papa" (white folk) should be entertained. She gave me a bedroom all to myself, with a smile that showed complete understanding of the foolish fads of the "wahine papa." It had a large "imported" glass window, giving on the main street of the town, and offering, through its lack of blinds, such a fine, free show for her interested populace, that I was obliged to go to bed in the dark. There was a real bed in the room, covered with a patchwork quilt of a unique and striking design, representing a very realistic scarlet devil some four feet long. It seemed to me the kind of quilt that would need a good conscience and a blameless record, on the part of the night unexpectedly, with the moonlight streaming in, forged for the moment where you were and looking round to find a landmark, drop your startled eyes upon that scarlet fiend, sprawling all over your chest - Well, I had a good conscience, or some - I do not know which - so I felt the red devil would not disturb my chambers, and he did not.
There was nothing else in the room except a new, gold-laced, steamship officer's cap, whereto there seemed neither history nor owner exposing on the pillow. If there was any mystery about the cap I never knew it. I put it out on the windowsill, and a hen laid an egg in it next morning, and no doubt the hen lived happily ever after, and I hope the officer did, and that is all. It seems pathetic, but I do not know why. There was nothing to wash in, but Tau knew her manners, and was quite aware that I might have a prejudice against sitting in a washing-tub on either the front or the back verandah, to have buckets emptied on my head in the morning. So she made haste to leave a kerosene tin full of water, before going to her camphorwood chest, and extracting a pink silk dress trimmed with yellow lace, for me to sleep in.
Concerning quilts, by the way, one may here add a short note. Patchwork is the delight of the Cook Island women, and has been so, ever since that absorbing pastime was first introduced to them by the missionaries' wives. They are extremely clever at it, and often invent their own patterns. sometimes, however, they copy any starting device that they may chance to see - the more original, the better. A really good patchwork quilt is considered a possession of great value, and (one is sorry to say) often preferred to the fine, beautifully hand-woven mats in which the islanders used to excel. They still make mats in large numbers, but the patchwork quilt has spoilt their taste for the finer mats, and these latter are getting scarce.
In the morning, shark-catching was the order of the say. Aitutaki is celebrated for this sport all over Australasia, and I was very glad to get a chance of joining in it. Once does not catch sharks in Aitutaki, after the usual island fashion, which is much like the way familiar to all sea-faring for k---hook and line, and a lump of bad pork, and tow the monster to the shore when you have got him. No, thee is something more exciting in store for the visitor who goes a-fishing in Aitutaki lagoon. the water is very shallow for the most part, and heats up quickly with the sun, especially when the day is dead calm, and there is not a ripple to break the force of the rays. by noon, the lagoon is unbearably warm in all the shallow parts, and the sharks which inhabit it in large numbers, begin to feel uncomfortable. Some of them make for the opening in the reef, and get out into the cooler sea beyond. Others, one will suppose are lazy, and do not want to be troubled to swim so far. So they head for the coral patches here and there, and lie on the sand in the shelter of the rocks, their bodies thrust as far into the clefts and crannies of the coral as they can manage to get. this is the Aitutakian's opportunity. He is perfectly fearless in the water, and he knows that the shark is, after all a stupid brute. So he arms himself with a knife, takes a strong rope, noosed in a ship-knot at one end, in his hand, and dives from his whale-boat into the warm green water, where he has marked the latter end of a shark sticking out from a patch of coral, some three or four fathoms underneath the surface.
The shark, being head in, does not see anything, but by-and-by he becomes aware of a delicate tickling all along his massive ribs, and as he rather likes this, he stays quite still, and enjoys it. it is the Aitutakian, tickling him as boys tickle a trout in a stream at home, and for exactly the same reason. He has got the noose in his left hand, and his aim is to slip it over the shark's tail, while he distracts the brute's attention by pleasantly tickling with the other hand. Perhaps he manages this at the first attempt - perhaps he is obliged to rise to the surface, and take a breath of air, going down again to have a second try, that, in any case, he is pretty sure to get the noose on before the shark suspect anything. Once that is accomplished, he rises to the surface like a shooting air-bubble, swings himself into the boat, and gives the order to "haul in!" The men in the boat lay hold of the rope, tighten with a sharp jerk, and tail on. Now the shark begins to realise that something has happened; and realises it still more fully in another minute or two, when he finds himself fighting for his life on the gunwale of a rocking boat, against half a dozen islanders armed with knives and axes. The battle is short; the great brute is soon disabled by a smashing blow on the tail, and in another hour or two the village is feeding fat on his meat and his fins are drying in the sun, to be sold to the trader-by-and-by, for export to China. No dinner-party in china is complete without a dish of daintily dressed shark's fins, and a good proportion of the supply comes from the Pacific.
This is shark-fishing, as practised in Aitutaki. but I was not destined to see it at its best, for the day turned out breezy, and there was such a ripple upon the water that the natives declared the sharks would be extremely difficult to see or capture. Nevertheless, the captain and I decided to go, as there was a chance, though a faint one. We hired a boat, and took with us, as well as the rowers, Oki, a driver of renown If Oki could not raise a shark for us, it was certain that no one could. The captain of the missionary steamer John Williams had told me about the fishing some weeks before, and added that he had seen a shark caught himself, and tried to photograph it, but the photo was not a success, became, as he put it, "the shark moved!" this story wandered about in my mind as we shot across the lagoon to the fishing grounds, and the boat began to look uncomfortably small "What does the shrk do when you get it in the boat?" I inquired rather anxiously.
"Makes the devil of a row, and the devil of a mess," said our own captain cheerfully. "But don't you mind him. Let sharks alone, and they'll let you alone; that's always been my experience."
Conscious that I was never unkind to animals, not even tigers or sharks, I tried to feel at ease. but I aid not quite succeed until we got in the coral beds, and Oki put everything else out of my head by going head first overboard, and starting out among the rocks below (it was calmer here, and we could see him pretty plainly) to look for a shark. His thin brown body showed up shadowy and wavering upon the sands at the bottom, as he glided like a fish all along the patch of reef, inspecting every cave or crack where a shark might hide. He did not seem to be incommoded in the least by the three or four fathoms of water above him, but moved about as quietly and easily as if he had been swimming on the surface. I felt sure he must be at the point of death, as the seconds flew by, and he still glided in and out of the rocks with nothing but the gleam of his white pareo to show his whereabouts, whenever he slipped into the shadow of one of the many clefts in which a shark might be hidden. But Oki knew very well what he was about, and he did not seem at all exhausted when he shot to the surface again, after rather more than two minutes' absence, and told as gloomily that "No shark stop!"
We tried again, and again. Oki took the slip knot down with him every time and every time he brought it up in his hand, anused. Melancholy, deep and silent, settled upon the boat. But at last the luck changed; our diver came up, and announced with a smile, that there was a shark down there, very far into the coral, and if he could only reach the animal's tail, it would be all right. One of the boatmen at this went to help him, and together they swam down to the bottom, and began fumbling interminably in the shadow. It was clear that they were making every effort to tempt the shark and, for one could see Oki straining wildly with his arm in the cleft "tickling" industriously, while the other hovered head downwards outside, trailing the noose like a loop of seaweed in his hand. but all proved vain. Exhausted, the men rose at last, and gave it up. the shark was too far in, they said, and the noose could not be got on. If we remembered, they had told us it was not a good day, and they hoped we thought enough had been done. As for themselves they were very tired doing our pleasure, and their lungs were sore, but they thought some plug tobacco - the black sticky kind, and a good deal of it - would set them all right again.
This was outside the letter of the agreement, which had included a good price for the boat and nothing else; but we promised some tobacco, when the stores should be reached, and asked for some more particulars about the fishing.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Shark fins, I was told, sell for about six shillings a pound. some of the traders in the islands further north, where sharks are abundant, make a good deal of money taking the fish on a hook and line, and drying the fins for sale. It should be a fairly profitable industry, as the fins of a medium shark appear to weigh a good deal - and les than three or four pounds, at a guess.
It was on my second visit to Aitutaki that I went out to the lesser islands of the lagoon; but the tale of that expedition may well come here.
These islets are of various sizes, from a mere rock with a couple of palms on it, to a fertile piece of land over a mile long, richly grown and wooded. They all lie within the great lagoon, and are therefore sheltered by a natural breakwater of the reef from the violence of the storms that occur in the rainy season. The nearest is about three miles from the mainland. All are quite uninhabited, and no particular value is set on them by anybody. they belong to the various chief families of the big island, but any one who wished to rent one in perpetuity (the New Zealand Government laws, which rule here, do not permit outright sale) could probably secure it for a few pounds a year. I was anxious to see them, for it seemed to me that islands suited to the realisation of Robinson Crusoe dreams could hardly be found the wide Pacific over. A desolate isle five hundred miles from anywhere, sounds well in a story, but the romance of such a spot is apt to wear very thin indeed after a few months, if one may believe the experience of those who have tried it. Practical details are seldom considered by would-be Crusoes; they have, however, knack of thrusting themselves into the foreground just when retreat is impossible. If you elect to live on a remote island, how are you going to keep up communication with the outer world? You will want at least a few commodities of civilisation from time to time, and they cannot swim across half the great South Seas, from Auckland or 'Frisco, up to your front verandah unaided. You will want mails, newspapers, and letters, unless haply you are a criminal flying from the near neighbourhood of the black cap and the drop - and how are these to come? Trading schooners will not call at your island unless you have plenty of cargo for them, and even then, you may not see them twice a year. Steamers of course, you must not expect. If you keep a small vessel of your own, you must be thoroughly sea-trained to run and navigate her, and you will need to bring a few island men to your kingdom as crew, and they will want to go home again, and make tr5oubvle, and finally run off with your ship some dark night, and maroon you there for good. No, the "desert" island idea is best left to the shelves of the school library.
But at Aitutaki, and in some similar collections of atoll islands Robinson Crusoe's way is made easy and pleasant - or so it seemed to me, crossing the lagoon that afternoon on my way to the islets that were lying waste and uninhabited out on its broad expanse. From three to five miles away from the mainland, these islets are sufficiently isolated for any one who has not quarrelled with the whole human race. there is a steamer once a month, at the little pier near the settlement. There are one or two stores on the main island, where common provisions, cotton stuffs, spades, and knives, and such simple things, can be purchased. The lagoon is usually so calm that a native canoe would serve all ordinary needs of communication, for any one living on an islet. A house could be built in a few days, of the native type; and a good concrete bungalow could be put up with native help, in a very few weeks. Why should any one want to live in such a spot? Well, it is not necessary to argue out that question, because I have found by experience that quite a remarkable number of people do. It was for those people that I crossed the lagoon that day, and I know I shall have their thanks.
A whale-boat and a crew were necessary for the trip, I engaged both in the village, and went down to the wharf followed by a "tail" of seven stalwart islanders dressed in white and crimson pareos, berry necklaces, and a curiously representative collection of steamship caps and jerseys. the Aitutakian is an inveterate traveller, and all these men had been away in a steamer somewhere as deck hands - or else their friends had, and they had begged a steamer cap and jersey or two here and there; it was all the same to them. The P. & O. - the Union S.S. Co. of New Zealand - the Shaw, Savill, and Albion - the Orient - Burns Philp - were all represented (so far as caps and jerseys went) by my boat's crew, and very well pleased with themselves and their poached attire they evidently were. Provisions had to be purchased, they declared, as we should not be back before aft4rnoon. so into the big store the whole party went to see me victual the ship. I bought biscuits and meat, exactly half what they asked, and they were so uplifted with joy at the amount of the supplies that they sang all the way down to the boat; and, once in it, tr4eated me to an exhibition of rowing, the like of which I never expect to see again The Aitutaki man is the smartest boatman, and the best hand with an oar, in the Southern Pacific. Never a man-of-war comes round the cook group that her men do not try conclusions with the Aitutakians, and if report speaks truth, the result is not always flattering to British pride. Nor is this astonishing, to any one who has seen these islanders now. We had six miles of a pull, and every inch was against a strong head wind, and through a decidedly choppy sea. yet, in spite of these handicaps, the men rowed the whole way at racing pace, oars springing, spray flying, the great whale-boat rearing through the water as though a mortal enemy were in pursuit. the coxswain, in the stern, kept slyly urging the rowers on the let the foreign woman see what they could do, and they pulled "all out" - or what looked extremely like it - from start to finish. I do not think any white crew that ever held an oar could have lived with that splendid six-mile rush. And when we neared the first island and gradually shacked speed, there was not one among those seven mighty chests that heaved faster than at the start. Truly, I thought, they had earned their picnic.
But the islets! If Rarotonga was the realisation of a childish dream, this was the embodiment of a vision of fairyland. there can surely be nothing on earth more lovely than the islet constellation enclosed by Aitutaki reef. The water, shallow, sun-jewelled, and spread out over a bed of spotless coral sand, is coloured with a brilliance that is simply incredible. Emerald and jade and sapphire - yes, one expects these, in the hues of tropic seas. but when it comes to whole tracts of glancing heliotrope and hyacinth, shot with unnameable shades of melted turquoise and silver, and all a-quiver with pulsations of flashing greens, for which there is no name in any language under the pallid northern or burning southern sun - then, the thing becomes indescribable, and one can only say: "There is something in that little corner of earth beyond the touch of words, so you will never know anything about it, unless you too go there, and see it for yourself. And when you have seen, you will come away burning to describe, as I was - but you will not be able."
In the midst of this magical sea, rise the islets themselves white, as only a coral beach can be; palm-trees, heavy-headed with their loads of huge green nuts, cluster thick along the shores; coral-trees drop their blood-red flowers into the glass-like water of the lagoon; ripe oranges swing their glowing lamps among the darker green of the woods that rise behind. Big white clams with goffered shells, each holding meat enough for one man's dinner, gleam along the edges of the shore; large, long-legged crabs wander rustling and rattling among the stones. The murmur of the barrier reef is very far away; its thin white line of foam gleams out a long way off, under a low horizon, sky shot strangely with lilac blue - a lonely, lovely, exquisite place, the like of which one might seek the world all over, and never find again. We landed on the sand, and I set about exploring, while the men knocked down cocoanuts, and squatted in the shade to drink them, and suck fresh oranges. the island on which we had landed was one of the smaller ones, not more than an acre or two in extent. It rose to a high point in the centre, and was so thickly wooded all over, that I could hardly make my way through. There was no sign of life or habitation, and the ripe fruit was everywhere rotting on the ground.
I pictured the little islet with a high brown roof peeping out among its palms, a neatly kept pathway cut through the bush, and a snug boathouse on the shore, covering a fine whaleboat, while a graceful native canoe lay on the sand, ready for any one to lift down into the water at any minute. I wonder, will the picture, ever body itself out, in real, for some tired-out soul, weary of cities and competition, or some pair of lovers, who find the world well lost in each other, here among the far islands of the sweet Southern Seas? I shall never know, for the "sea-bird's feather" was in the pillow on which I slept my first baby sleep, and I wander always on. but it may be that these words will be read by some to whom they are, or shall be, a part of life's own history. We did not get to the other islands that day, partly because I wasted so much time looking for shells, and partly because the largest were still some miles away, and the wind was stronger than ever. One, I heard, had ground enough for a paying plantation, and was already fairly well supplied with cocoanuts. All are perfectly healthy and free from fevers of any kind, and though mosquitoes are present in rather large numbers, careful clearing of their breeding grounds would in time drive them away.
An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908.
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