Authors: Alec Waugh
A Travel Book
This book was originally published in 1930 under the titleThe Coloured Countries.It is the account of a series of journeys that I made in the Far East, the West Indies and among the South Sea Islands between 1926 and 1929 when I was myself in my later twenties.
Travel in those years was pleasant, easy and cheap. Railways and steamship lines had recently made accessible a number of out-of-the-way places that a few years earlier could only have been reached with great difficulty and considerable financial cost, while the aeroplane had not yet brought them within range of the nine-day vacationist. There were no currency regulations then. There was no trouble over visas. Ships were not crowded. You could always get a cabin to yourself. The contemporary reader of this book may well imagine me to have been a wealthy person. Far from it. I had no private income and was earning with my pen under twelve hundred pounds a year. But in June 1926 I was able to buy from the Messageries Maritimes a round-the-world ticket that included four months of first-class accommodation for Â£163. During a five months' trip in the West Indies I spent under Â£400. To a fiction-writer like myself who had no ties, who could carry his office with him, world travel offered not only glamour, romance, adventure, what you will, but a practical and economical solution of many of the problems of livelihood. I was lucky to have been born when I was. I had access to a great deal of fun during the years when I was most capable of enjoying it.
To-day, of course, all that is over. The world is divided into zones. There are currency regulations, visa problems, and a lack of transport. Passages can only be booked with great difficulty, and journeys made in great discomfort. Every hotel in the world is overcrowded. It will be many years before free and light-hearted travel is possible again.
Had a new edition of this book been issued, say, in 1938, I should have been tempted to qualify a number of the comments, to indicate which prophecies had been fulfilled and which had not, to tell what had happened subsequently to certain of the characters, to describe (for instance) the death of the old Judge at Dominica, but to-day in 1947 in a world so different that we might be existing upon another planet, I thought it better to offerHot Countriesto a new generation of readers frankly as a period piece, unaltered as I wrote it, a picture of a way of living that exists no longer.
I. AT SEA
III. LA MARTINIQUE
IV. “GONE NATIVE”
VII. THE ENGLISHMAN IN THE TROPICS
VIII. NEW HEBRIDES
IX. THE BLACK REPUBLIC
Â Â Â Â Â AUTHOR'S NOTEIAt Sea
“THE first question to ask about a travel book,” I have heard it said, is, “Can the author go back to the places he has described?” Usually he can't. Those books that are more than bread and butter letters addressed to the people from whom their author has received hospitality, have not brought the novelist into good repute. I have noticed at times a quizzical look in the eyes of the officials and planters to whom I have been introduced.
“What, another of you fellows coming here to write us up?”
Well, that is not a thing that I have ever done. I have never gone to a place to write it up. I have travelled for the sake of travel. Novel writing has this advantage over most other jobs, that your office premises are portable. One way and another I have covered a good many miles, calling in at the places where I have friends or that I have felt curious about, carrying on with my job of story-telling in cabins and hotel bedrooms, mingling as I should in London with the life that I have found about me.
And if you travel in that way you cannot write exhaustively of subjects. This book is a narrative of personal impressions. It is like casual fireside talk when the stream of anecdote and reminiscence carries you from sea to sea, from continent to continent. Penang reminds you of Tahiti, Dominica of the Siamese teak forests; Haiti recalls the mosquito-hung lagoons of the New Hebrides. I have written as I have travelled. My plan has been to have no plan.
It began, I suppose, in the spring of 1925, with the reading ofThe Trembling of a Leaf.I was staying at Diano Marinawith G. B. Stern, and through an entire evening Geoffrey Holdsworth and I discussed “The Fall of Edward Barnard,” the story of a young Chicagoan who leaves America with the intention of making a fortune in the South Seas, only to surrender his ambition in an atmosphere of soft glances and soft airs. For three hours we discussed the problem of the “beachcomber.” Why, we asked ourselves, should man work himself in a cold inequitable climate towards an early grave when so little a while away livelihood lay ready to his hand? Why make life difficult when it might be easy? Why avoid a sunlit leisure? Did it really profit a man that he should make fortunes in Lombard Street when copra can be sold at a few francs a bag on the palm-fringed edge of a lagoon?
That started it. For on my return to London, a fortnight later, I was met by Petre Mais' exuberant curiosity.
“Now what's all this I hear from Geoffrey Holdsworth about you and the South Sea Islands?”
I stared blankly. What, indeed?
“I hear,” he went on, “that you and he sit up all night discussing them, and that you've made up your mind to settle there.”
“You'ld like to, though.”
“If there's a place,” I said, “where one can live on thirty thousand words a year, it's well worth while having a look at it.”
Next morning the readers of theDaily Graphicwere informed that on the previous day Mr. Londoner had lunched with Mr. Alec Waugh, who could talk about nothing except the South Sea Islands, which he was planning to tour shortly. That settled it. The snippet is the only part of a newspaper that is really read. You can have your novel noticed in reviews of a column's length, in paper after paper, and only such of your friends as have received a presentation copy of it will be aware that it is out. On the other hand, the inclusion of your name in the list of guests at a raided night club is certain to be seen by everyone. There is no limit to the power of the paragraph. It is the one part of a morning's paperthat is not dead by lunch-time. As the Buddhists conceive immortality it is immortal. It dies but it is re-born. It is the candle from which lamps are lit. During the next few weeks every mention of me in the press referred to a Mr. Waugh, who was shortly to desert London for the South Sea Islands. I found myself included in leaderettes on “The Lure of the Pacific.” Men came up to me in my club with a “Look here, about this trip of yours. â¦” I heard so much talk about the Islands that I had to buy an atlas to find out where Tahiti was.
To begin with, it was amusing. Later on it became embarrassing. I felt as Tartarin did when his brave talk of lions was taken literally. And as the weeks passed and nothing happened, I found as Tartarin found, that I was being regarded with suspicion. People seemed surprised and a little indignant at meeting me still in London. “What, not gone yet?” they said. I felt that I had no right to be in Piccadilly, that I was a gate crasher who had better go before he was turned out. Precipitately, I flung myself upon the cares of the Western Shipping Agency.
“I want,” I said, “to go round the world.”
By the time I had got back I had developed the travel habit.
And it is not easy to break oneself of habits. Once, after two years of almost continuous wandering, I vowed that never again would I set foot upon a liner. I was weary of packing and unpacking, of state-rooms and cabin trunks. I longed for the amenities of a compactum wardrobe, of bookshelves and arm-chairs. For twenty-four months I seemed to have done nothing but fill and empty drawers. “Never again,” I told myself as I signed a seven years' lease for a flat in Chelsea. I meant it too. At thirty, I thought, one should begin to think of settling down. But within three months that flat was in the hands of the house agents and I was suggesting to Eldred Curwen that he should desert Europe and a Ballot for Martinique and a canoe. Once again my trunk was covered with the French Line's red and yellow labels.
When I was a prisoner of war in Germany, supporting life upon a daily ration of three slices of bread, five bowls of watery soup, and six potatoes, I could not believe that the day would ever come when I should rise from a table on which food remained. In much the same spirit, as thePellerin de Latouchesteamed up the Garonne towards a Biscay that was to justify its reputation, I could not believe that on this actual boat within a week's time we should be panting beneath electric fans in unbuttoned shirts, clamorous for open windows.
It was clearly, for the first days, anyhow, to be an unpleasant voyage. The ship was crowded. The sea was rough. And I am not one of those happy travellers who love the ocean in all its moods. A storm at sea is, I am sure, a noble spectacle. The beating of the wind upon one's face, the dashing of the waves across the deck, the spray turned into a rainbow by the sun, the quivering of the ship as trough after trough of waves is breasted; it is all, I am very certain, very fine. But it is rather differently that I have seen it.
Ignobly prostrate in my cabin, I have watched through half-seeing eyes my possessions heap themselves into chaos on the floor. As a Victorian moralist watched during the War the overthrow of beliefs that he had looked on as immutably fixed lodestars, so have I watched objects that in harbour had seemed part of a permanently ordered scheme of living, sway, shiver and disappear. As the curtains over porthole and door swung inwards I have watched my wardrobe, garment by garment, detach itself from hook and hanger. I have watched my combs and brushes, my links and studs and shoe-horn slither over the polished surface of the dressing-table. I have watched gramophone records skate majestically towards the floor, to mingle with shoes and suit-cases in a measured sliding from one side of the cabin to the other, in time with the lurching ship. I have heard the crash of cabin trunks; have listened hour by hour to the rattle of a tooth-glass against a mug; have listened and have not cared.
Nor can I honestly confess to any sense of shame. Onmy second morning I made a gallant, rather than a judicious, appearance in the dining-room. And a careful scrutiny of the depleted tables left me unconvinced that it is to the highest of His creatures that the Lord has granted immunity from sickness.
It was not a particularly pleasant trip. I am doubtful whether any really long sea voyage is.
At the start it is fun enough. There is a real kick to that first walk round the ship that for three weeks or a month is to be your home; that is to contain all you are to know of friendship, boredom, interest, romance. You scan surreptitiously, with an eager curiosity, the faces of your fellow passengers. Soon enough they will reveal themselves as the familiar types. Before lunch-time on the third day you will know who it is that is going to make speeches and propose healths in the dining saloon, whose voice it is that will harry you with shouts of “Red lies two. Good shot, partner, oh, good shot!” You will recognise those with whom you are likely to become friends and those between yourself and whom you will be at pains that there shall always be the length of half a deck. In forty-eight hours you will know them all. But for the moment they are mysterious and unknown. They are like an unopened mail. There is a spring in your stride as you stroll along the deck. You have been at trouble that the impression you are yourself to make shall be as good as possible. Your tie has been carefully chosen. You are wearing your happiest suit.
But the sense of novelty is soon lost, and when it is once lost the passing of each day seems very long. Life develops into an attempt to find an antidote to boredom. Each nationality has its own medicine. The French employ a policy of passive non-resistance. Everyone does nothing resolutely. You rise late in pyjamas, to loll about the deck till the hour before lunch when you go below to shave and change. After lunch you siesta. After tea you read. As soon as possible after dinner you go to bed. The English are aggressive. Every instant of the day must be employed. There are sports committees and concert committees and fancy-dresscommittees, and at every odd moment of the day harassed secretaries are chasing you round the deck to tell you that you must be ready to play your heat in the deck quoits in five minutes' time. The Americans settle down to bridge in the smoking-room directly after breakfast, and do not leave it except for meals till the bar is closed at midnight. I do not know which method is the best. For a six days' trip I prefer the American. But after a week one's liver resents the strain. For ten days deck games may be amusing, but ten days are the limit. After that, one is exhausted and involved in a dozen feuds. Whereas the French method, though it prohibits all social intercourse and is devastating for a short voyageâI recall in particular a voyage between Colombo and Singapore when literally I spoke to only one man and only to him at mealsâis the only attitude that I can imagine possible on a long voyage, since it does not force people into such close contact with each other that they get immediately upon each other's nerves. But even so, however one takes it, the experience of a long voyage is an exacting one.
The trip on thePellerinwas no exception. I was counting seconds, not hours, by the tenth day out of Plymouth. And yet when the last night came, on this, as on every other trip that I have ever taken, I found myself limply surrendering to the conventional sentimental wistfulness.
I have read much and seen a little of the genuine pathos of last nights on board when the brief but deep friendships of a fortnight's passage are sundered in all human probability for ever. But on thePellerin,during those twelve days of discomfort and discontent, such contacts as had come to us had been superficial. Yet all the same, as the last day closed and the sudden tropic night with its train of unfamiliar stars swept statelily over the calming waters, Eldred and I found ourselves growing sad and silent.
What was it? The surrender simply to a facile uprush of obvious emotions? “We never,” said De Quincey, “do anything consciously for the last time without regret.” Liketrees we take root where we are planted. And I fancy that our instinctive sadness at these moments of uprooting is something more than a false idealising of the past simply because it is the past; that the psychologist would detect in it a recognition subconsciously of the symbol in our brief sojourning of the sojourning only relatively less brief of all mortality; that in this loss of things and faces that have grown familiar we are abandoning a series of amulets, of reassurances in a continuity that possibly does not exist; that this sudden last-hour friendliness for a number of persons with whom we have little if anything in common and whose acquaintance, were it made in the customary routine of life, we should never bother to follow up, is based upon genuine sentiment.
It may be. But be it how it may, the phenomenon remains that whether the voyage has been long or short, grey or pleasant; whether its end is to mean the opening of a new and entrancing chapter of fresh experience, or a return made grudgingly to conditions from which we can only temporarily escape; always there rises on that last night a clouded mood of melancholia. People to whom you have scarcely spoken during the voyage come up to you after dinner. “What, going to-morrow?” they say, “that's sad. We shall be a less cheerful party.”
And you sit talking, not as you have talked on other evenings, casually, without enthusiasm because your eyes were too tired for the reading you would have preferred, but eagerly, intimately, expansively in quick, coloured sentences, in a desperate haste to get said in this short night all that must otherwise remain unsaid. And right through the conversation will run motif-wise the refrain “How tragic that this should be our last night.”
It is ridiculous, but there it is.
For days Eldred and I had been counting the hours to our release. For days we had been telling ourselves that neither in this nor any other life did we wish to see again one inch of those sulky sea-splashed decks, or one foot of all the feet that had trodden them. Yet when the time had come for usto drift quietly through the still waters of the Caribbean we were almost regretting that on the next night it was to be under the grey shadow of Carbet that we should be sleeping.
It was wet and misty as thePellerin de Latouchedrew into Fort de France, and it was hard to distinguish the lettering on the large, broad-beamed cargo flying a French flag, that followed us into dock. There was, however, a familiar quality about that long, low ship with its single funnel, its black airholes, its squat, white superstructure; and yet I could scarcely believe that chance should have brought into that harbour at that moment a ship that only three times a year and for a few hours touched there. It would be the kind of coincidence that the novelist is counselled to avoid scrupulously. And yet it was very like the ship that twenty-four months before I had seen steam slowly into the Segond Channel.
I turned to the Commissaire.
“What's that boat over on our right?” I asked.
“That,” he answered, “Oh, that's theLouqsor”
He spoke rather contemptuously. And no doubt theLouqsorto the Commissaire of an ocean liner would seem a somewhat discreditable acquaintance. To describe her as a cargo boat is to say nothing. The word âcargo boat' evokes a picture of Kipling's “black bilboa tramp,” and a “drunken dago crew.”
But nowadays there are not too many such. The smartest small ship I ever travelled on was theHandicap,a Norwegian cargo boat running between Europe and Seattle, that I boarded as she was passing through the Canal. She was an oil burner of 9,000 tons. There was never a speck of dirt upon her. The crew were housed in small, clean, airy cabins; two or three men in each. The twenty-three days' journey to London was the most comfortable I have ever had. She carried no passengersâI had to sign on as an assistant purser. My cabin was large and cool, the food better and more varied than I should have had on any save a transatlantic liner. There was naturally no saloon. But the captain, a marriedman, travelling with his wife and two small children, had the kind of flat for which, furnished, you would pay four guineas a week in London. The word “cargo” boat nowadays means simply “not carrying passengers.”
Indeed, by that criterion, cargo is an inexact description of theLouqsor.It does carry passengers, a few. Built twenty-five years ago as a troopship, it now runs on the Messageries intermediate service between Noumea and Dunkerque. It is an old-fashioned ship. The steering apparatus is arranged on the outside, so that all night long a chain is rattling outside your cabin porthole. There is no cold storage, so that your meat has to be carried fresh. The front part of the ship is like a farmyard. There are sheep and bullocks and pigs and chickens. You feel as though you were travelling on the Ark. The great feature of the ship's life is the slaughter, twice weekly, of a bullock; a spectacle for which most of the passengers and any available deck hands assemble. The cabins are not large, the dining saloon is also the smoking-room, the bar, the library, and the music-room. When it rains there is no part of the deck on to which water does not leak. There is no promenade deck. If you want to take exercise, you have to take it between barrels of kerosene and wine on an unawninged deck. There are only two baths, one for women, the other for the male passengers and officers. It is not the kind of ship that a tourist agency would charter, but of the thirty or so ships on which I have travelled during the last four years it is by a long way my favourite.
Romance and glamour are bound up with it. From its decks I saw for the first time the mountains of Tahiti. With its engines throbbing, six months later I set out from Marseilles for the long voyage southwards and westwards through Panama to the Pacific. But it is not for these things alone I love her. I have known no ship where the life on board is more personal, familiar, sympathetic; where one feels more at home, where everyone on the ship; sailors, white and black; passengers, saloon and steerage, give the impression of belonging to one family. There is a delightfully free and easy atmosphere. You sit about in pyjamas all the morning;you stand on the bridge watching the slow swaying of the prow as she cuts her way through the blue waters. When we crossed the equator the entire ship was devoted to aquatic revelry. Sailors and passengers chased each other with hose pipes and buckets of water along every deck. And yet in spite of this casual atmosphere discipline is never relaxed. The captain remained dignified and reserved, the master of his ship. As, indeed, all French captains do. We are told often that the French are indifferent sailors. They may be. That I am unable to judge. But this I do know that their captains in the merchant service compare very favourably with the British ones. Most of my travelling has been done on French boats, on the boats of the C.G.T., and the Messageries Maritimes. I have scarcely ever travelled on a first-class English linerâthe Atlantic ferry boats are hotels rather than shipsâbut on the smaller liners there is an unfortunate tendency among British captains to consider as their chief concern the entertainment of their passengers. They behave as though they were the conductors of a pierrot troupe. That I have never seen happen on a French ship.
On theLouqsorlife followed a calm routine. One woke with the sun at six. There was a leisurely dressing andpetit dÃ©jeuner.By half-past seven I was in a corner of the dining saloon, a pen in hand, with four hours of work ahead of me. We lunched at eleven-thirty. At twenty past twelve the clock was put back to twelve. Through the heavy heat of the day we siestaed in long canvas chairs, sleeping a little, talking a little, reading desultorily. From five to half-past six I took my exercise on the lower deck, a solitary walk, through which I planned my next day's writing. After dinner there was nothing to do but to sit out on deck listening to a gramophone. Not an exciting life, but the most harmonious atmosphere I have ever known at sea. When I saw theLouqsorlimping away towards Moorea, I feltâit is a clichÃ©d phrase but there is no other adequateâthat it was taking something of myself away with it. I never expected to see its weather-beaten prow again.
It was an extraordinary coincidence that its arrival in Fortde France should have coincided with my own. Not the most extraordinary that I have known. The most extraordinary happened in the spring of 1928, when P. T. Eckersley, the Lancashire cricketer, was on theBerengariawith me, on his way to the West Indies for a cricket tour. It was a be-galed and be-fogged journey. On the first day out of Cherbourg the seas were so heavy that the engines were slowed down. We reached the Hudson river six hours late, to find an impenetrable mist laid low upon it. For two days we were marooned. A melancholy two days in prohibition waters. For everyone it was a dismal time. But for no one was it more exasperating than for Peter Eckersley. The connection he had meant to make in New York would be lost. It would be a week before another boat would sail. He would be late for the first Test Match. Gloomily he paced the unvibrating decks.
And then just about tea-time on the second day there was a faint quiver through the ship. Everyone ran to the taffrail to see, feet below it seemed, a ship that had collided with us. It was a seven- or eight-thousand-ton affair, but it looked an absurd midget alongside the majesticBerengaria.It was a David assaulting a Goliath. We mocked it as the Philistines mocked David, when suddenly Eckersley gave a gasp.
“Good heavens! I believe that's the ship I should be on,” he cried. It was; the ship that should have taken him to the West Indies and the first Test Match, that he had no chance of catching now, lay alongside of us thirty feet below. In his cabin were his trunk and cricket bag. He had only to lower them over the side and follow after. Yet there he had to sit waiting for the mist to rise, for the midget steamer and the vast liner to drift apart, for theBerengariato move westward to the bleak climate of New York, and the little fruit boat to the sunlight and the palm trees and the level fields.
That, I think, was the most curious coincidence I have ever known. But the episode of theLouqsorwas a quaint one. So quaint that I half wondered whether the arrival at the same hour as myself of this ship with which, in one way or another,is bound up most of what in the last three years has mattered personally to me, was not an omen, a symbolic beckoning back of me towards Tahiti. On the top of the gangway there was the black notice-board, “Le' Louqsor' partira pour Colon Ã neuf heures”And in five days' time the word Colon would have been rubbed out, the word Papeete substituted. In five days' time. And three weeks later there would be the jagged outline of the Diadem.
We dined that night with Alec Daunes, the second captain, and his brother-in-law; the only two officers who had not changed since I had made the trip. And all the time we talked about Tahiti.
“There's nothing like it,” Daunes insisted. “I've been at sea for twenty years. I've seen most parts of the world, east and west. But if I were left two thousand dollars a year I'd go to Tahiti, and as long as I lived never ask anything else of life.” Then, persuasively, “Why not come on with us to-morrow? You've not got your trunks unpacked yet. Why not come?”
It was tempting; more than tempting when we were back on the ship for a last drink before we said good-bye. It was hard to believe, when we were grouped round the familiar table in the familiar cabin, that I had ever left, that I could ever leave, that ship.
“Come on now,” they pleaded. “We'll send one of the men back to the hotel to fetch your trunks. Stay on here. It'll be so simple. When you wake up next morning, we'll be out of sight of land.”
It was very tempting. And Eldred, I believe, was ready enough to yield. I resisted, though.
“Tahiti. I've said good-bye to it, I think, for ever.”
Which, two years previously, was the last thing that I could ever have imagined myself saying.IITahiti
I Shall never forget my first sight of Tahiti.
For months I had been planning to go there. For weeks I had been dreaming of going there. But on the eve of my arrival I craved for one thing only: a magic carpet that would carry me to London. I had been travelling for eight months and I was very tired: tired of new places and new settings. My ears were confused with strange accents and my eyes with changing landscapes. To begin with there had been the Mediterranean. Naples, Athens, Constantinople. A few hours in each. A hurried rushing to the sights: then the parched seaboard of the Levant. Smyrna with its broken streets, and hidden among its ruins the oasis now and then of a shaded square where you can drink thick black coffee beside fat Syrians who puff lazily at immense glass-bowled pipes. Smyrna and Jaffa and Beyrout. An island or two. The climbing streets of Rhodes, the barren ramparts of Famagusta. Then Egypt and the mud houses. And the tall sails drifting down the Nile. Then Suez and the torment of the Red Sea when the heat is so intense that perversely you long to be burnt more and at lunch eat the hottest of hot pickles neat, till the inside of your mouth is raw: a torment that lapses suddenly into the cool of the Indian Ocean.
There had been Ceylon. The Temple of the Tooth at Kandy, with its scarlet and yellow Buddhas so garish and yet so oddly moving, as though there had passed into those pensive features something of the brooding faith of the hands that chiselled them; and the lake at Kandy after dusk, when the fireflies are thick about the trees; and the streets of Kandy on the night of the Perihera, when gilt-shod elephants lumber in the wake of guttering torches.
And afterwards there had been Siam. Bangkok with its innumerable bright-tiled temples and the sluggish waterways that no hand has mapped; those dark mysterious canals, their edges crowded with huddled shacks, their surface ruffled by the cool, slow-moving barges in which whole families are born, grow up, see love and life and die. Siam and the jungles of the north through which I trekked day after day, slithering through muddied paddy fields, climbing the narrow bullock tracks that cross the mountain. There had been Malaya, green and steaming when the light lies level on the rice fields; and Penang where I had lingered, held by the ease and friendliness of that friendly island, cancelling passage after passage till finally I had had no alternative but to cancel the visit I had planned to Borneo.
“I'll spend a month in Sydney,” I had thought. “Then I'll push on to the Pacific.” But I had been away six months before I left Singapore, and each place that I had been to had meant the forming of new contacts and relationships, the adapting of myself to new conditions. And as theMarellaswung into Sydney Harbour and I saw lined up on Circular Quay a smiling-faced crowd of relatives and friends, that sudden sensation of nostalgia which is familiar to most travellers overcame me. England was at the other side of the world. I was lonely and among strangers. That very afternoon I was enquiring at the Messageries about the next sailing for Noumea. And as a month later theLouqsorrolled its way eastward through the New Hebrides, I lay back in my hammock chair upon the deck, a novel fallen forward upon my knees, dreaming not of the green island to which each day the flag on the map drew close, but of the London that was waiting a couple of months away.
And then I saw Tahiti.
But how at this late day is one to describe the haunting appeal of that island which so many pens, so many brushes have depicted? The South Seas are terriblyvieux jeu.They have been so written about and painted. Long before you get to them you know precisely what you are to find. There have been Maugham and Loti and Stevenson and Brooke.There is no need now to travel ten thousand miles to know how the grass runs down to the lagoon and the green and scarlet tent of the flamboyant shadows the road along the harbour; nor how the jagged peaks of the Diadem tower above the lazy township of Papeete; and beyond the reef, across ten miles of water, the miracle that is Moorea changes hour by hour its aureole of lights. And there has been Gauguin; so that when you drive out into the districts past Papara through that long sequence of haphazard gardens where the bougainvillea and the hibiscus drift lazily over the wooden bungalows, and you see laid out along their mats on the verandahs the dark-skinned brooding women of Taravao, their black hair falling down to their knees over the white and red of thepareothat is about their hips, you cry with a gasp of recognition, “But this is Gauguin. Before ever I came I knew all this.” Everything about the islands isvieux jeu.And yet all the same they get you.
For that is the miracle of Tahiti, as it is the miracle of loveâfor though you have had every symptom of love catalogued and described, love when it comes has the effect on you of something that has never happened in the world beforeâthat the first sight of those jagged mountains should even now touch in Stevenson's phrase “a virginity of sense.”
Spell is the only word that can describe adequately that effect. Tahiti is beautiful, but no more beautiful than many islandsâPenang, Sicily, Martiniqueâthat touch the heart certainly, but far faintlier. There are no fine houses and no ample roadways. For the most part the sand is black, so that scarcely anywhere do you find those marvellous effects of colour, those minglings of greens and blues and purples that will hold you entranced for a whole morning in Antigua. There is no reason why, when you sit at dusk on the balcony of Moufat's restaurant, you should have that sensation which only and on occasions supreme beauty stirs in you of being in tune with the eternal. For it is upon a dingy square that you are looking down, nor would thearrivistecare to be recognised in Bond Street in any of the dilapidated cars that are drawn round it. And it is the backs of housesâgrubbyaffairs of wood and corrugated ironâthat are on your right, and to the left there are the meaner of the Chinese stores, dingy, ill-lit, with bales of crudely printed cloths, and imitation silk, and the tawdrier of Indian shawls. There is not a single object for your eye to rest on that possesses the least intrinsic artistic value. Yet there are those who would rather dine on the rickety balcony at Moufat's than see the Acropolis by moonlight.
You can fall in love at first sight with a place as with a person. And I had fallen in love with Tahiti before ever I had set foot in it.
As the ship swung slowly through the gap in the reef I could see the children bathing in the harbour. There was a canoe drifting lazily in the lagoon. The quay was crowded with half the population of Papeete. They were laughing and chattering and they waved their hands. As the ship was moored against the wharf and the gangway was let down, a score or so of girls in bright print dresses, with wreaths of flowers about their necks, some quarter white, some full Tahitian, scrambled up the narrow stairway to welcome their old friends among the crew. The deck that had been for a fortnight the bleak barrack of an asylum became suddenly a summered garden. The spirit of Polynesia was about it, the spirit of unreflecting happiness that makes the girls wear flowers behind their ears, and the young people smile at you as you pass them by, and the children run into the roadway to shake your hand.
It was in a tranced state that I walked past the little group of trading schooners to where the tables at the Mariposa CafÃ© were filling up. It was five o'clock, the hour at which the offices and the stores are closed. The water-front was crowded with people returning from their work. It was a variegated crowd. There were the Frenchmen, smart and dapper in their sun helmets and white suits. The Tahitian boys with narrow-brimmed straw hats. The island girls barefooted, in long print dresses that reached half-way down their calves, their black hair flung loose about their shoulders or gathered high with a comb upon their heads. They woremost of them behind their ear the white flower of thetiare.They walked with strong, swinging, upright stride, while beside them and among them, dainty in frocks that had been copied from Californian fashion plates, were theblondesanddemi-blondes,some of them pushing bicycles, others loitering in the shadow of a parasol.
A variegated crowd, a mingling of every nationality and race. Yet they gave the impression of belonging to one family. For that is another of Tahiti's miracles: that it cancels all differences of race and caste. In the old days, when it was the custom among the Polynesians to exchange their babies, there grew up a saying that they were all brothers and sisters on the islands, since no one knew for a surety who was the child of whom. And now, though the custom is dying or has died, its influence persists in the feeling of kinship that binds together this variously blended, variously conditioned race.
On the verandah of the Mariposa CafÃ©, at the next table to mine, there were seated some half-dozen girls who were chattering merrily and noisily together. When I ordered a cocktail they burst into a roar of laughter.
“Cocktail,” cried one of them. “So that's your middle name? Mine's rum.”
For a moment I was puzzled, wondering into what old menagerie I had landed. But before we had exchanged five phrases I had realised that their greeting implied no more than friendliness: that introductions were an unnecessary inconvenience on the island.
“When we like the look of anyone,” they said, “we speak. What's your phrase, Tania?”
“A feeling is a feeling.”
And they all burst into a roar of laughter.
They were always laughing, for no reason in particular, out of sheer lightheartedness. And I brought my chair over to their table. And we chattered away in a rapid mixture of French, English and Tahitian in which French, being the only language which we could all speak with any fluency, predominated.
“And you're sailing on theLouqsor?” they asked.
I supposed I was.
Ah, but I wasn't to, they protested. We could have such fun together. They would take me out into the districts and we would eatfeis,which is the wild banana, because no one who had eatenfeiscould leave Tahiti. And as I sat at ease and happy among those happy people, while the sun sank, a mist of gold-shot lilac, behind the crested outline of Moorea, I felt that my life would be half-lived were I to sail five days later.
How I was to avoid sailing, however, I did not see. I have rarely been more penniless than I was at that moment. All my life has been passed upon a shoe string. The moment that money comes to me I spend it. Overdrafts and account-rendered bills are the framework of my existence. I live, have lived, and expect to die in debt. But this time I had not only been improvident, I had been unfortunate. Just as theMarellawas leaving Singapore I received a telegram from London with the news that the chief commercial concern on which my livelihood depended had gone into liquidation and the residue of emoluments long overdue was being farmed parsimoniously by the public receiver. Had I received the news a day earlier I should have returned to England. As it was, my passage to Australia was booked. It looked the devil. Indeed, had it not been for the rescuing generosity of my American publishers I should have spent two of the most uncomfortable months of my existence. Even as it was, I arrived in Tahiti with a capital consisting of the unexpired portion of a ticket to Marseilles and eleven pounds in cash. I could see no alternative to continuing my journey. English short stories are an uncommercial commodity in a French island that has no printing press. The beachcomber market has been spoilt. And though I sent a cable of enquiry to the friend who manages my business, I had no reason for believing that anything but a substantial overdraft was awaiting me in London. Nor was anything unlikelier than that I should get an answer to my telegram in time.
Just occasionally, however, things turn out in real life asthey do in stories. Hilaire Belloc has written somewhere of that dream of all of us, “the return of lost loves and great wads of unexpected wealth.” And I do not think that any single moment will ever bring me, as it had never brought me, as keen a thrill as that with which I read on a green telegraph form, a few hours before the sailing of the ship, above the signature “Peters,” the news that one of the big American magazines had bought, and princelily, the serial rights of my last novel. I could not believe that it had really happened; that for half a year I was to be free from all need to worry about money; that I could stay in Tahiti as long as I might choose, that I could do the conventionally romantic thing and watch from the quay my ship sail on without me.
That evening I walked slowly and alone along the waterfront. The air was heavy with the scent of jasmine. A car drove by; a rackety old Ford packed full on every seat, so that the half-dozen or so men and women in it were sitting anyhow on each other's laps, their arms flung about each other's shoulders. In their hair was the starred white of thetiare.One of them was strumming on a banjo; their voices were raised, their rich soft voices, in a Hawaiian tune. Here, indeed, seemed the Eden of heart's longing. Here was happiness as I had never seen it and friendliness as I had never seen it. Here was a fellowship that was uncalculating and love that was unpossessive, that was a giving, not a bargaining. I wondered how I should ever find the heart to leave.
Which is how most of us feel on our first evening in Tahiti, and yet, one by one, we wave farewell to the green island in the sure knowledge that in all human probability we have said good-bye to it for ever.
The conditions of the old South Sea sagas have been reversed. They told, those old stories, of men happening by chance on Eden, and suddenly abandoning their plans, and their ambitions, deciding that “slumber is more meet than toil,” and letting their ship sail without them.
To come as most men deemed to little good,
But came to Oxford and their friends no more,
And that is over. You cannot at this late day happen unexpectedly upon a South Sea Island. The hydrographers have seen to that. Instead, the islands attract from a distance of ten thousand miles those whom modern life has disenchanted. It is with the half-confessed intention of never coming back that they set out. After they have been there ten days they assure you that no power on earth will induce them to go away, and yet within a very few weeks you will run across them in a shipping office.
Not, I think, for any of the obvious reasons.
I know all that can be urged against the tripperishness of Tahiti. It has a tourist agency, a cinema, six hotels and three ice-cream parlours, with the night-club idea of a good time so thoroughly introduced that all that the average Tahitian wants is to wear a print dress copied from a Californian fashion-plate, be stood cocktails all the afternoon, taken to a cinema in the evening, and driven afterwards along the beach in a closed Buick. The whole island lives for the monthly arrival of the mail boat from San Francisco. During the twenty hours that the liner is moored against the quay every truck and car that comes in from the districts is packed. From dawn to closing time the tables of the Mariposa CafÃ© are crowded. There is not a seat vacant in the cinema, and afterwards there is dancing and singing and much drinking, so that the superior-minded tourist will raise his eyebrows scornfully. “I don't want to see this,” he says. “I want to see the real island life.”
But in point of fact the thing that he is seeing is the real island life. Except in remote islands the old Polynesian life has disappeared, and it is reluctantly against their will that those few still lead it. They would all prefer to be living in an imitation of the world that they have seen portrayed for them on the films. For that is the paradox of the islands: that we should go there a little wearied, a little disenchanted by the conditions of modern life to find a people whose one ambition is to establish in their green fastnesses the precise conditions that we are fleeing from.
While I was staying in Moorea there was a native girl whoused to paddle across the lagoon most mornings in her canoe. She did a certain amount of work about the place, but most of her time she spent with a ukulele across her knees, humming Polynesian tunes, telling us Polynesian legends. It is of her that I think when I try to picture Loti's Rarahu. She was simple and friendly and affectionate. In the accepted sense she was not beautiful. She would have looked ugly in a photograph or in European dress. But when she danced, or sang, or swam she achieved a perfect harmony with that setting of palm trees and golden sand. She belonged there. And it was exquisite to watch het swimming under the water; the brown arms and shoulders, the scarlet and yellowpareo,the long black hair floating behind her like a comet's fan. Here was the eternal Rarahu. And this, I told myself, was the Polynesia that existed before traders and missionaries came to tamper with it. This was what made Captain Cook's mariners desert their ship and hide in the green valleys.
As it was, of course. But it was a life that no longer contented the Polynesian. She was bored, insufferably bored. Her relatives kept her like a slave, she told me. They would not let her go to Tahiti. All her cousins were there enjoying themselves, going to cinemas, driving in Ford cars; and here she was, wasting her best years in an island where there was no cinema and not a single car. What was there for her to do? It was a shame, wasn't it? And it would have been useless for me to tell her how worthless a thing was that town-life in comparison with her own. She had seen the American magazines, and on her rare visits to Papeete had been taken to the cinema. She had absorbed the night-club idea of what is a good time.
It is hard for the European and the American to escape a wistful longing for the Polynesia that is rapidly disappearing. If only, we think, we could put back the clock two hundred years; if only we had sailed the Pacific in theBountyinstead of theMakura.
The last week of my first visit to Tahiti I spent forty miles from Papeete, at an hotel run by an Hawaiian, that was more a family boarding-house than an hotel. There was not awhite man within five miles of us. We are at a long table, some dozen of us, for though there were not more than four bedrooms, it was a patriarchal establishment, and stray cousins would arrive with banjos and ukuleles to stay for a day, for five days, for a month; to sing and fish, and at night stretch themselves on the verandah. You never knew whom you would find next morning at the breakfast table. It was a Tahitian house. We lived on Tahitian food: onpoi,that is, the baby octopus; on raw fish soaked in coconut; on little crabs that have to be eaten with one's fingers if one is to get the flavour of the sauce; on shrimps served in a sweet curry, a preparation of coconut and ginger; onfeisand yam and bread-fruit baked in a native oven. By day we would bathe and fish. By night we would sing and dance on the verandah.
One morning we went, some eight of us, for a picnic into the interior, to a pool five or six miles up the valley, where in the old days the queen would bathe with her handmaidens. It was a circular pool some fifteen yards across, and the stream that fed it had worn the rock quite smooth so that you could slide for thirty feet down a sharp decline into the water. It was a couple of hours' trudge. As we drew near the pool the girls let down their hair, twining fern wreaths for it; the moment we arrived they pulled off their European petticoats and frocks, wrapped their red and whitepareosbeneath their arms, and scampered up the path to see who would be the first into the pool, while the boys without bothering to take off their clothes plunged in as they were, in their shirts and trousers, laughing and shouting to one another. It was a race to see how often one could get out of the pool, clamber up the hilly path to the top and slide down again.
Then someone suggested that it was time for food, and while the girls prepared a fire, the boys went up the valley in search offeisand bread-fruit. By the time they were back the fire had been lit. They tossed the fruit among the redhot ashes, and cutting a bamboo shoot they filled one end with the shrimps, the other with the small fish that they had chased and caught with their five-pronged spears on the wayup the valley. They squeezed the juice of a lime over the fish, placed the bamboo in the centre of the fire, covered the fire with leaves and earth and twigs and went back to bathe and shout and laugh till the meal was ready.
It was a delightful meal; the best picnic food that I have ever eaten, and as I sat there on the rocks among those light-hearted, care-free people, the girls in their wreaths and pareos, the boys with their clothes still dripping from their bathe, it was with an intolerable sense of loss that I remembered that in five days I should be saying good-bye to all of this, perhaps for ever; saying good-bye not only to these cool valleys and this happy people, but to rarer things I could not afford to lose; to candour, innocence, simplicity. Where else could they be found? And how much longer would it be possible to find them here? In a few years' time civilisation would have made an end of the island life. A few years and Papeete would be rivalling Waikiki. What Papeete was now, Tautira would become. There would be houses and neat gardens and proficiency. A calculating people bent on “getting on in life.”
It may be that it is as profitless and sentimental to lament the passing of Tahiti as it is to lament in Europe the passing of the peasant and the migration to the towns. The truest excellence is in simplicity. But between the simplicity of the peasant and the simplicity of men such as Turgenev is set the gradual evolution of centuries of thought. It may be that the simplicity of the peasant has to be destroyed, that life has to become complicated and obscure before the ultimate simplicity can be reached; that the only significant simplicity is based upon sophistication, upon experience and growth; that the passing of Tahiti is inevitable, that it is idle to regret it. It may be so. I think it is so. But I know that to the end of my life I shall be unable to recall without regret those tranquil moments in that valley; the green and yellow of the trees, the grey pool in front of us, the sound of water, and the girls with fern wreaths in their hair.
It is only at moments now that one catches glimpses of the old Polynesian life, and it may well seem that a visit to the South Seas must be as disenchanting an experience as life can offer. One does not travel ten thousand miles for the sake of finding the “Green Grotto” in a different setting.
But it is not quite like that; it is not that at all. For though the islanders may have a night-club idea of a good time, they do see to it that the time is good. They have none of that attitude of modish boredom that most townsfolk assume in restaurants and theatres. The Tahitians, into everything they do, throw a refreshingly primitive gusto for enjoyment. They would never go to a cinema because they had an odd half-hour to put in, because they had nothing better to do, because there are worse places to talk quietly and hold hands. They go there to see the pictures and to enjoy the pictures, and if volume of sound is any criterion of enjoyment they succeed. A bull-fight is the only public entertainment of which I can conceive as being noisier.
The noise starts at three o'clock in the afternoon when, shortly after the close of the siesta, a small cart covered with placards is driven round Papeete to an ear-splitting accompaniment of kettledrums. That is only a prelude. The noise inside the hall is deafening. To start with, the small urchins who occupy the front rows do not cease shrieking with laughter and excitement for one instant. There is a native orchestra, which is accompanied vocally by a considerable section of the audience. And, lastly, there is an interpreter to translate the cinema captions into Tahitian, whose voice has to make itself heard above the uproar. The cumulative effect would shame a football crowd at Stamford Bridge. How much the actual film conveys to the audience I cannot judge. Not a great deal, I fancy, at any rate in the way of continuous narrative. They do not see the various incidents as consecutive to one another. In the Paumotas Archipelago, for instance, where they can get hold of nothing except old and tattered serials, no attempt is made to arrange the instalments in any order. The fifteenth follows the third, and thefirst is sandwiched between the eleventh and the sixteenth, an arrangement that in no way lessens the hilarious delight of the native, who asks to be presented with a succession of sensationsâa chase, a fight, a kissâand does not care in what order the sensations follow.
The Tahitians have more sophisticated tastes, but the part of the evening that they enjoy most is, I suspect, the twenty minutes' break in the middle of the long film, when the most succulent episodes out of the next week's programmeâthe fight, the chase, the kissâare rushed through without explanation or caption, presumably as an advertisement, but actually as the chief attraction of the evening. The serious student of the cinema would not derive much entertainment from such an evening, but it is an experience that the spectator of the human comedy would be sorry to be without.
As is the case with the majority of those incidents that make up the sum of island life: the market, for instance, where the natives congregate every morning to buy their provisions and exchange the gossip of the previous night. And the daily departure of the district bus; you would search Europe in vain for its equivalent. It is an uncomfortable three hours' journey over an uneven road in a vast van lined with wooden seats; but there are many who prefer it, not only for reasons of economy, to a well-sprung Buick. It is an hilarious business. Invariably the truck is packed beyond capacity with baskets of fruit and vegetables and sacks of copra and such livestock as hens and pigs, among which the passengers arrange themselves as best they may. And they are all friends together and they shout the local scandal and the local jokes to one another. And every few minutes there is someone to get on and someone to get off, and the gossip of fresh districts to be exchanged. And there is a gaiety and gusto in that journey for which you will look in vain elsewhere.
Little remains of the life that Captain Cook discovered. But then you can find nowhere an exact replica of conditions that existed two hundred years ago. And possibly, since we ourselves are different, we should not appreciate them if we could. Possibly all that we are wise to look for are equivalentsof that which charmed our ancestors, and the Society Islands seem, from what I have seen and heard, to be the one place in the Pacific where an equivalent for the Melville atmosphere exists.
The wilder islands of the Melanesian groups are not possible. They are harassed with mosquitoes and malaria; the natives are cowardly, savage and uninteresting. Samoa is under British control, which means the drawing of a sharp colour line, and though the drawing of that line is admirable and necessary in India and Malaya, it is in search of freedom that you go to the South Sea Islands. Hawaii is too near Americaâonly five days from San Francisco. Honolulu is nothing but a very charming American city, a holiday resort for Californians, an alternative to Del Monte. While the smaller Polynesian islands, which are little more than trading stations, are neither one thing nor another. Nothing that I have heard about the Marquesas has made me anxious to visit them.
Tahiti and Moorea alone provide an equivalent for what the mariners of theBountyfound, and that on the surface they very adequately do. In the first place they are French, and since the French are without colour prejudice you can, without social ostracism, mix freely with one of the gentlest and sweetest natured people in the world. It is in the very centre of the Pacific, a fortnight from Sydney, ten days from San Francisco. The mail boats visit it only once a month. There is, in consequence, no casual tourist traffic. You have to stay there a month or not at all. During the month's interval between the boats you are cut off completely from civilisation. There is no local newspaper, and no one bothers to read the wireless bulletin that is posted daily on the notice board outside the post office. You have, however, many of the amenities of civilisation. There are a number of hotels. And though they would seem in a photograph desolate and barren shacks, all you need in the tropics is a verandah, a shower-bath, and a comfortable bed.
The climate, apart from the two or three months of the rainy season, is delightful. Except at midday, it is neverreally hot. A thin Panama hat is sufficient protection against the sun. There is no malaria, the mosquitoes are small and not really troublesome. All night there is a sufficient breeze from the mountains to warrant at least one blanket on the bed, so that you get, what you so rarely get in the tropics, a night's rest that genuinely refreshes you. Living is very cheap, though not as cheap as it is supposed to be. The beachcomber market has been spoilt. Third-class passengers have to deposit their return fares before they are allowed to land. And those white men who have arrived practically penniless in the belief that they will be supported by native hospitality have been bitterly disappointed. Even so, living is cheap. There is little to spend money on. If you are going to settle there it is as well to arrive with enough money to build or buy a house, but a house once built, a married couple can live in very reasonable comfort on four hundred pounds a year, while with a thousand they can lead a life that six thousand would not give them in California.
Moreover, the life itself there is extremely pleasant. Though you are cut off from civilisation, you have no lack of varied and entertaining society. There are always a number of amusing people staying and passing through, and in a world where there is no strain, no hurry, you have the leisure and amplitude for talk, for the free development of personal contacts. The days pass pleasantly.
“But what do you find to do there?” people ask. And that is a question that it is very hard to answer. One never seems to be doing anything in particular, and yet one is never bored. The air is warm and soft, and you relax to it as you relax to a hot bath. Though that is scarcely an exact simile. For you do not feel languid, but in abundantly good health. It is just that you can be happy taking a long time over everything; over dressing, over feeding pigeons, over wandering along the shore, collecting shells, sitting on a rock watching the many-coloured fish swim in and out among the coral, watching the land-crabs scurry away into their holes as you go by, sitting on a verandah listening to a Tahitian strum upon a ukulele. While all about you is the unbelievablebeauty of the island; its flowered greenery and the marvel of its nights, its moonless as its moonlit nights; for when there is no moon the natives go out in their canoes to fish by torchlight, and from the verandah of your bungalow you watch the lights moving and swaying on the reef.
The days pass, you work a little and you play a little. Life is effortless and sweet. And you wonder how you will ever find the heart to leave, and you ask yourself why you ever should. Here the best of both worlds seem to be combined. Surely here one should be able to forget all that is petty and contentious in Western life, relaxing to this tranquil atmosphere, taking root here by these gentle waters.
And yet one cannot. One by one we have found, those of us who have made the experiment, that there is something in the atmosphere of Tahiti that prevents the modern sophisticated westerner from that relaxing. He cannot forget Europe. He cannot take root. And before he has been there many weeks he is beset by the last thing that he had expected to be beset by there, a curious restlessness and irritability. His nerves are on edge. He cannot settle down to anything. He loses all sense of proportion. He embarks on the most absurd quarrels with his acquaintances. He loses the very thing he came in search of tranquillity.
Looking back in a calm remembrance of all that happened there, I have wondered sometimes whether it is not to the monthly arrival of the mail boat as much as anything that this restlessness is due. It introduces the idea of time, whereas timelessness is the essential condition of island life. A few days before my first visit there I dropped and broke my watch. It did not matter much on board a ship, and in Papeete I would get myself another one I thought. But when I reached Tahiti I found that I had no need of a watch. Hours did not matter. When the sun rose you got up. When the sun was high you siestaed. When the sun sank you began to think of supper.
During my six weeks there I had no watch and never missedit. And it seemed to me a fitting symbol of a return to Western life that practically my first act on my return to San Francisco should be to buy one. I was back in a world where time mattered. And it is one of those curious coincidences that make one credulous of unseen presences that on my journey back, five months later, the dollar watch that I had bought in San Francisco, that had shepherded me without failing through America, through three months of London and across the Atlantic, through the West Indies and Panama into the Pacific, should, within a day's sail of Fakarava, have unaccountably and permanently stopped, as though it had realised that its work was finished and that I should have no further need of it in a country where time did not exist.
Or rather where time should not exist. For time does exist there now. The year is divided into the thirteen arrivals of the mail boats, and it is hard to imagine a more irritating spacing out of time. If the mail boat came every day it would be a matter of such ordinary occurrence that no one would notice it. If it came once a year you could forget about it in the interval. But once every four weeks; no, that is too much. By the time you have ceased talking about one mail you are talking about the next. The island life is built round mail day. It is the great gala day, for which the girls prepare their brightest frocks and the hotel proprietors their dearest wine. Instinctively, you find yourself counting the days to it, counting days in a country where you should lose count of days; counting the days to that which represents everything that you are trying to forget: letters, newspapers, the rivalries, jealousies and animosities to which you are still half attached; with people who are a part still of that life exchanging ideas with you, recalling to you ambitions you had thought were dead. The three days when a boat is moored against the wharf constitute a complete uprooting of the detachment you had been cultivating. They prevent you from taking root, and it is impossible to be at peace in a place where you cannot take root.
For a month, for two months, for three months possibly you will imagine yourself to be in Eden, but sooner or laterthat restlessness, that irritability, will come. Your nerves will be on edge, and suddenly you will find yourself thinking that if you have to stay there another week you will go off your head. It is an experience that is almost universal. Nearly everyone I know has sworn, a week before they left, that there was no spot in the world they hated more. And yet when the last siren goes, one and all we feel that our hearts are breaking. The first time I saw a ship sail from Papeete, a French naval officer, who was returning home by it, burst into tears. It was ridiculous, he said, “mais on s' attache”
That is how most of us feel when we watch the mountains of Moorea grow indistinct.
It may be, though, that that explanation is too fanciful: that I came nearer to the truth in the story that I planned and never wrote, of a young man who had decided to spend nine months in travel before taking up the partnership that his father's death had left open for him in the motor business, on whose proceeds he had been expensively educated at Marlborough and Magdalen. He would be the average romantically unexceptional young man, and like so many others when he saw the peaks of the Diadem he would order his steward to pack his trunks. “New Zealand and Samoa can wait,” he had thought. “I've four months to spend. I'll spend them here.”
I had pictured him that evening leaning over the balcony of the Hotel Minerva watching the sun set behind Moorea. Beside him there would be Demster, an English tourist, of a month's standing, whom all that afternoon the young man would have been cross-examining with an eager curiosity. Which is how usually it happens. For one arrives a stranger without introductions, and it is from a fellow tourist that one receives one's first and invariably inaccurate information on the island's customs.
“I wonder what you'll make of it,” the older man was saying. “I suppose it'll end in your taking a house in the country somewhere and that'll mean an island marriage. It'sthe only way, I'm told, of getting a girl to cook for you. No one bothers about money here. And a girl would consider herself insulted if a bachelor asked her to work for him without living with him. They're simple folk. Frocks and motor rides and love. That's their whole life. I don't suppose that if you took a house you'd be allowed to remain long in it alone.”
But the young man, Ray Girling, would be scarcely listening. Curiosity would be at rest. The velvet of the night would be soft with the scent of jasmine, and down the lamplit avenue under the tent of the flamboyants, arm in arm the flower-haired girls are walking. The air is fragrant with a sense of love, sensual and tender love, such as the acuter and bitter passions of the north are alien to.
“I expect,” he said, “I shall leave life to decide that for me.
It would be the typical opening to the conventional South Sea story, and indeed it is difficult to write otherwise than conventionally of Polynesia. It is as hard not to echo Loti as it is for the writer of detective stories to avoid parallels with Sherlock Holmes. But Rarahu is fifty years away; the death of Lovaina during the influenza epidemic marked the close of arÃ©gimeas definitely as did for England the death of Queen Victoria. The issue is not the same now as it was for Maugham and Loti. And it was not merely the need for variety that made me plan the story about a white girl rather than a brown.
For that evening as the two men were walking along the water-front a voice hailed them, and two young women who had been riding towards them jumped off their bicycles.
“What, still here and still alone, and on a Tahitian evening?”
It was the elder who spoke, an American, gay-eyed and mischievous, married for ten years to a French official; much wooed by the younger Frenchmen and by none of them, rumour had it, with success, she was held to be the most attractive woman in Papeete. But it was the younger that Ray Girling noticed. Never had he seen anyone to whomthe trite simile of flower-like could be more appropriate. She was small and slight, with pale yellowish hair and cornflower-blue eyes. Her body in its pale green sheath of muslin seemed in truth to sway like a stem beneath the weight of the blossom that was her face.
“I don't think,” said Demster, “that either of you know Mr. Girling. He arrived this morning on theMakura,and he fell in love with Tahiti so much that he's decided to stay on.”
The American raised her eyebrows meaningly.
“In love, why, sure, but with an island!”
They laughed together.
“I can't think,” said Girling, “how I shall find the heart to leave.”
“That's what you all say at the beginning,” said the girl whom he had noticed first.
“And do they all go away?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Some stay, of course; most go. To most people Papeete is a port of call. There're the tourists who stop for a month or two, and the officials who've come for three or four years, sometimes for half a lifetime. And the naval officers who are stationed on and off for a couple of years. Then there're a few Americans who spend their summers here. But in the end they go, nearly all of them. If you live here, you have rather a sad feeling of beingâoh, how shall I put it? â¦. like a station through which trains are passing. People come into your life and go out of it. It's like living in an hotel rather than in a home.”
“But you're happy here?”
“It grows monotonous, you know.”
“To me it seems like the Garden of Eden.”
Again the cornflower-blue eyes smiled softly.
“I wonder if you'll be saying that in four months' time. You know what they say about Tahiti? That a year's too little a time to stay here and a month too long. They maybe right. But when I was a child I always used to wonder whether Adam and Eve were really sorry to be cast out of Eden. I always wondered what they found to do there; didn't you, sometimes?”
She spoke half whimsically, half wistfully, in a voice that was lightly cadenced and with that particular purity of accent that is to be found only in those to whom English has come as a “taught language,” a purity that seemed in its peculiar way symbolic of her charm.
“Perhaps,” Ray Girling answered her. “But I'm very sure that I shall be heartbroken when the time comes for me to go.”
At that point the American interrupted him.
“Heartbroken,” she cried, “it won't be so much Mr. Girling who'll be heartbroken.”
Again there was a general laugh.
“At any rate,” she concluded, “I hope you won't get too domesticated to come and see us sometimes.”
The invitation was made friendlily and genuinely enough, but it was of her companion that he was thinking as he accepted it, and it was about Colette that he sought information of Demster the moment they were alone.
“Who is that girl?” he asked. “You haven't met her before, I gather?”
Demster shook his head.
“I know all about her, though. It's rather a sad story. Her father was a Canadian who came over here to direct a store; her mother was a young French girl who fell in love with him and married him. Four years later, when the time came for the man to return to Montreal, he calmly informed her that he had a wife in America; that if she wished to have him arrested as a bigamist she could; but that if she did, his income and means of supporting her would cease; that the best thing would be for her to say nothing and to accept the allowance he would continue to send her, provided she made no attempt to leave the island. For Colette's sake she decided to accept. But everyone knows, of course, as everyone knows everything in Papeete. It's a sad story.”
Girling nodded. He could understand now the wistful expression of those pale cornflower-blue eyes; he could understand why she had spoken wistfully of the station through which trains hurried, and he could imagine with what weight even in this free-est of free countries the knowledge of her parentage must press on her. “She must always feel,” he thought, “apart from others. Never able to mix wholeheartedly among them.” Yet in spite of it all her nature had not soured. “I hope,” he thought, “that that isn't the last I'm going to see of her.”
That was how the story was to have begun. The next scene was to have been at the cinema, three weeks later.
Four times a week there is a cinema performance in Papeete, and on those evenings the streets and cafÃ©s of the town are empty. And as Ray Girling stood on the steps of the long tin building during the ten minutes' interval, it was to seem to him that there were clustered in the street below, round the naphtha-lighted stalls where the little Chinese proprietors were making busy trade with ices and coconuts and water melons, every single person with whom he had been brought in contact during his stay in the hotel.
There was Tania, one of the last direct descendants of the old royal family of the Pomaris, her black hair dressed high upon her head, a rose silk Spanish shawl about her shoulders, chattering to the half-dozen or so girls with whom he would idle most afternoons away over ice creams in the Mariposa CafÃ©. There was the Australian trader with whom he would discuss the relative merits of Woodfull and Macartney. A couple of French officials he had met at theCercle Colonialeand others whom he knew by sight, the girls from the post office, the assistants from the three big stores, the skipper of theSaint Antoine; all that numerous crowd that he had watched from the balcony of his hotel, strolling lazily along the harbour-side. He had learnt to recognise most of the people in the town by sight during that three weeks' stay.
And he had done most of the things that one does do atTahiti during one's first three weeks there. He had driven out round the island, through Mataiea, past the short wooden pier on which during the last spring of the world's peace a doomed poet wrote lines for Mamua. He had spanned the narrow isthmus of Taravao; he had lunched at Keane's off a sweet shrimp curry; he had bathed on the dark sands at Arue, and in the cool waters of the Papeno River. He had chartered a glass-bottomed boat and, sailing out towards the reef, had watched the fish swimming in and out of the many-coloured coral. And day after day the sun had shone out of a blue sky ceaselessly and night after night moonshine and starlight had brooded over the scented darkness, and Ray Girling was beginning to feel just ever such a little bored.
“It may be,” he thought, “that that girl was right about a year being too little a time and a month too long.”
And gazing a little despondently at the thronged roadway, he wondered how he should employ the fourteen or so weeks that must pass before the sailing of theLouqsor,the French cargo boat, by which he had planned to return to Europe.
“Well,” a voice was asking at his elbow, “and is it still the Eden that you expected?”
The question was so appropriate to his mood that he could not resist laughing as he turned to meet the smiling flower-like features of Colette Garonne.
“At that precise moment,” he said, “I was just wondering whether you weren't right about Adam and Eve finding it a little dull in Eden.”
“You too, then, and so soon.”
“I was just feeling â¦” But she was so divinely pretty, even under the harsh glare of the electric lights, that he could not retain his temper of despondency. “I was just feeling,” he said instead, “what an enormous pity it was that we couldn't go on to supper and a cabaret after this, as we would if we were in New York or London.”
“So you've come ail this way to regret New York.”
“To regret that there's nothing to do after eleven; for there isn't, is there?”
“Not in the way of cabarets.”
“In any way, then?”
“The Bright Spirits drive off now and again in cars”.
“In cars, where?”
“Oh, anywhere. To bathe, or out to Keane's, or just to sing. That's the island idea of cabaret.”
“Well, then â¦” He hesitated. Often as he had sal before going to bed on the hotel verandah he had envied the crowded cars that had driven singing through the night below him. It had seemed so care-free and light-hearted with a light-heartedness with which he was not in tune. But he had felt always shy of suggesting such an expedition to any of his friends. On this occasion, however, the impelling influence of pale blue eyes emboldened him. “Wouldn't it be rather fun,” he said, “to have an impromptu cabaret this evening?”
It was her turn to hesitate. “Well,” she said, pausing doubtfully.
He could tell what was passing in her mind. Though he had seen her often enough, smiling greetings at her, they had not talked together since the night when Demster had introduced them. And she was uncertain, he could guess that, as to the types of companion that he would be selecting for her. He made no effort, however, to persuade her. He had the intuition to realise that at such moments it is the wiser plan not to urge the reluctant to say “Yes,” but to make it difficult for them to say “No.” Less than a yard away Tania was chattering noisily in the centre of a crowd of friends, and stretching out his hand, Ray Girling touched her on the arm.
“Tania,” he said, “we were thinking of driving out somewhere after the show. What's your idea of it?”
“Sweetheart, that it would be heavenly.”
“And who else'll come?
Tania glanced round her slowly.
“There's you, and I, and Colette, and Marie; and we'd better have Paul to amuse Tepia.”
In a minute or two it had been arranged.
“Then well meet,” said Girling, “outside Gustave's the moment the show's over.”
It was one of those nights that are not to be found elsewhere than in Tahiti. It was October and the night was calm. From the mountains a breeze was blowing, swaying gently the white-flowered shrubs along the road, ruffling ever so slightly the languidly bending palms. Westwards over the Pacific, a long street of silver to the jagged outline of Moorea, was a waxing moon; clouds moved lazily between the stars. The air was mild, sweet scented with thetiare,a sweetness that lay soft upon their cheeks as the car swayed and shook and rattled eastwards. The hood of the car was up, for in Tahiti there is always a possibility of rain: and for the islanders the landscape is too familiar to be attractive in itself. It is for the sensation of speed that motoring is so highly valued an entertainment. And as the car swayed over the uneven road, they laughed and sang, beating their hands in time with the accordion.
For an hour and a half they drove on, singing under the stars.
“Where are we going?” asked Ray at length. “Isn't it time we were thinking about a bathe?”
“Not yet, sweetheart,” laughed Tania. “Let's sec if Keane's up still.”
“At this hour?”
“One never knows.”
For there are no such things as regular hours in the Islands. One is up certainly with the sun, and usually by nine o'clock in the evening one is thinking about bed; but there is always a possibility that friends will come: that a car will stop outside your bungalow: that a voice will cry, “What about driving to Papeno?” And you will forget that you are sleepy, and a rum punch will be prepared, and there will be a banjo and an accordion, and there will be singing and Hula-Hulas, and hours later you will remember that a car is in the road outside, that you were planning to bathe inthe Papeno River, and, laughing and chattering, you will stumble out of the bungalow, pack yourselves anyhow into a pre-war Ford and, still laughing and still singing, you will drive away into the night, to wrappareosaround you and splash till you are a-weary in the cool, fresh mountain stream. It is an island saying that no night has ended till the dawn has broken, and at Keane's there is always a chance of finding merriment long after the streets are silent in Papeete. And sure enough, “Look, what did I say?” Tania was crying a few moments later. Through the thick tangle of trees a light was glimmering; there was the sound of a gramophone and clapping hands.
There were some dozen people on the verandah when they arrived; a planter from Taravao had stopped on his way back from Papeete for a rum punch; there had been a new record to try on the gramophone, some boys on their way back from fishing had seen lights and had heard singing, one of Keane's daughters had taken down her banjo and a grand-daughter of Keane's had danced Hula-Hulas, while beakers of rum punch had been filled and emptied; twenty minutes had become five hours and no one had thought of bed. It was after midnight, though, and probably, without the arrival of any fresh incentive, in another half-hour or so the party would have broken up. As it was, a cry of eager welcome was sent up as Girling's car drove up, and another half-dozen glasses were bustled out, another beaker of rum punch brewed, and Tania, seated cross-legged upon the floor, her banjo across her knees, was singing that softest and sweetest of Polynesian songs,
Ave, Ave, te vahini upipiE patia tona, e pareo repo.
that haunting air that will linger for ever in the ears of those that hear it; that across the miles and across the years will wake an irresistible nostalgia for the long star-drenched nights of Polynesia, for the soft breezes, and the bending palm trees, the white bloom of the hibiscus, and the murmur of the Pacific rollers on the reef; for the sights and sounds and scents, for the flower-haired, dark-skinned people of Polynesia. Andas Tania sang and the girls danced, and the men beat their hands in time, the magic and beauty of the night filled over-brimmingly, as thriftlessly poured wine a beaker, the Western mind and spirit of Ray Girling.
“There's nothing like it,” he murmured. “Not in this world, certainly.”
“Nor probably,” quoted Colette, “in the next.”
And he remembered how a few hours earlier, in a mood of boredom, he had thought of Tahiti as a frame without a picture. He could understand now why he had felt like that. He had been looking at it from the outside. One had to surrender to Tahiti, to let oneself be absorbed by it.
Something of this sentiment he tried to convey to Colette.
“It's no good,” he said, “looking at Tahiti from outside.”
She sighed. “Outside. But that's what so many of us have to be.”
He looked down at her in surprise.
“It's not always so easy to surrender. You've got to surrender so much else as well.” She paused, looked at him, questioningly, then seeing that his eyes were kind, continued: “For me to be absorbed in it, for me to be inside this life, it would mean living the same life as all these other girls, and, well, you know what that is. I just couldn't; it's not that I'm a prude, but you know what my life's been; my mother's had a bad time. I'm all she's got. It would break her if anything were to happen to me.”
“If you were to marry, though.”
She laughed, a little bitterly. “But who's to marry me? Who, at least, that I'd care to marry. There aren't so many white men here. It's not for marriage that the tourist comes. The English and the Americans who settle here as often as not have left wives behind them. At any rate they've come because they've tired of civilisation. They're not the type that make a conventional marriage. And though the French may be broadminded about liaisons, they're very particular about marriages. As far as they're concerned I'mdamaged goods. It's not even as though I had any money. And I can't go. I can't leave my mother. I'm not complaining. Please don't think that. I'm pretty happy really. But I've never felt, I don't suppose I ever shall feel, as though I really belonged here.”
She had spoken softly, her voice sinking to a whisper; and as Ray Girling listened, a deep feeling of pity overcame him. She was so sweet, so pretty; it was cruel that life should have been harsh to her, here of all places, in Tahiti. It was true, though, what she had said. What they had both said about belonging here. One had to surrender to Tahiti, to take it on its own terms. Otherwise for all time there would be an angel before that Eden, with the drawn sword that was the knowledge of good and evil. He had talked a few minutes since of being himself inside it, but that he could never be as long as he was content to remain a sojourner. He was a tourist like any other, with his life and interests ten thousand miles away. He had a few weeks to spend here: a few weeks in which to gather as many impressions as he could. And perhaps because he loved the place so well, something of its mystery would be laid on him. But it was not thus and to such as he that Tahiti would lay bare her secrets. You had to come empty-handed to that altar; you had to surrender utterly; you could not be of Tahiti and of Europe. You would have to cut away from that other life, those other interests. Your whole life must be bounded by Tahiti; you must take root there by the palm-fringed lagoons, and then, little by little, you would absorb that: magic. The spirit of Tahiti would whisper its secrets into your ear. You must surrender or remain outside. Wistfully he looked out over the verandah.
It was so lovely, the garden with its tangled masses of fruits and flowers. The dark sand, with the faint line of white where the water rippled among the oyster beds; and the long line of coast, swerving outwards to a hidden headland, with beyond it, above the bending heads of the coconut palms, the dark shadow that was the mountains of Taravao; and over it all was the silver moonlight and the music ofthe breakers on the reef; and here at his feet, one with the magic of the night, were the dark-skinned, laughing people to whose ears alone the spirit of Tahiti whispered the syllables of its magic.
And as he leant back against the verandah railing there came to him such thoughts as have come to all of us under the moonlight on Tahitian nights. He thought of the turmoil and the conflict that was Europe: the hurry and the malice and the greed: the ceaseless battle for self-protection: the ceaseless exploitation of advantage: the long battle that wearies and hardens and embitters: that brings you ultimately to see all men as your enemies, since all men are in competition with you, since your success can only be purchased at the price of another's failure. He thought of what his life would be for the next forty years; he contrasted it with the gentleness and sweetness and simplicity of this island life, where there is no hatred since there is no need for hatred; where there is no rivalry since life is easy, since the sun shines and the rain is soft, and thefeisgrow wild along the valleys, and livelihood lies ready to man's hand. Where there is no reason why you should not trust your neighbour, since in a world where there are no possessions there is nothing that he can rob you of; where you can believe in the softness of a glance, since in a world where there are no social ladders there is nothing that a woman can gain from love-making but love. Such thoughts as we all have on Tahitian nights. And thinking them, he told himself that were he to sell now his share in his father's business there would be a yearly income for him of some six hundred pounds, a sum that would purchase little enough in Europe, where everything had a market price, but that would mean for him in Tahiti a bungalow on the edge of a lagoon, wide and clear and open to the moonlight, and there would be so much of work as to keep idleness from fretting him; and there would be a companion in the bungalow, and childrenâsmiling, happy children, who would grow to manhood in a country where there is no need to arm yourself from childhood for the fight for livelihood.
And at his elbow there was Colette, exquisite and frail and gentle. “Why run for shadows when the prize was here?” England seemed very distant, and very unsubstantial the rewards that England had for offering, and along the verandah railing his hand edged slowly to Colette's; his little finger closed over hers; her eyes through the half-twilight smiled up at him. They said nothing; but that which is more than words, that of which words are the channels only, had passed between them. And on the next morning when Ray Girling, along with the half of Papeete, was strolling down the waterfront to welcome the American courier, he blushed awkwardly when he heard himself hailed by the gay-toned American voice. “Hullo, hullo,” she called. “And it's a whole month since we said good-bye to Mr. Demster, and you're still living virtuously at Gustave's!” He blushed, for Colette was at her side, and her eyes were smiling into his, and between them the thought was passing that the time was over for him to make an island marriage.
“I've got three months left,” he laughed. But it had ceased, he knew, to be a question of weeks and months. But of whether or not he was to make his home here in Tahiti. The magic of the Island and the softness of Colette had cast the mesh of their net about him: the net that in one way or another is cast on all of us who watch from the harbour-side our ship sail off without us. Of the many thousands who have loitered in these green ways there cannot be one who has not wondered, if only for an instant, whether he would be wise to abandon the incessant struggle that lies eastward in America and Europe. Not one out of all those thousands.
Yet it is no longer true that those who come to the Islands rarely leave them. Sydney and San Francisco are very close. The story of most loiterers in Papeete is the story of their attempt not to commit themselves too far, to leave open a loophole for escape. Time passes slowly in the Islands, and usually before they have become too enmeshed something has happened to force on them the wisdom of delay.
For Girling it was the arrival on theManganuiof the liveliest thing in Australian salesmen that he had ever met. It happened shortly before ten o'clock. Like a whirlwind a short, plump, perspiring, serge-suited figure had hustled its way into the Mariposa CafÃ©, tossed its felt hat across a table, and leaning back in a chair had begun to fan its face with a vast brown silk handkerchief.
“My oath,” it cried, “but this is the hottest place I've struck! My oath, but a gin sling would be right down bonza!”
The two waitresses who were leaning against the bar gazed blankly at him.
“My word, but you aren't going to tell me that you've got no ice!”
He spoke rapidly, with a marked Australian accent, and the girls, who could only understand English when it was spoken extremely slowly, did not understand him. They looked at one another, then looked at the stranger, then looked again at one another and burst into laughter. It was time, Girling felt, that he came to the rescue of his compatriot.
“Suppose,” he suggested, “that I were to interpret. These girls don't understand much beyond French.”
“Now that would be really kind. And it would be kinder still if you were to order yourself whatever you like and join me with it. You will? Good-oh! That's bonza. You staying here? Well, I pity you. Myself? My oath, sir, no! When that boat sails for dear old Sydney I'll be on it. No place like Sydney in the world. Manly and Bondi and the beaches. Nothing like them. Dinky-die. New York can't touch it. Just come from there. Been travelling in wool. Did I sell much? My oath, sir, I did not. But I've learnt the way to sell. Those Yanks know how to advertise. Personal touch. Always gets you there. Straight at the consumer. Me addressing you, that's the way. The only way. Now look here,” and lifting his eyes he began to glance round the room in search of some advertisement that would illustrate his point. “âJ'irai loin pour un camel,'” he slowly mispronounced;“don't know enough French to tell if that's good or not. Let's see. Ah, look now,” and jumping to his feet he pointed excitedly to a large cardboard notice that had been hung above the bar:
ASK GUSTAVEHE KNOWS.
“That's it,” he exclaimed. “Couldn't be better. No long sentences. Nothing about our being anxious to give any information that tourists may require. Nothing impersonal or official. Nothing to terrify anyone. Just the impression of a friendly fellow who'll give you a friendly hand. The very impression you want to give. My oath, it is!”
He began to enlarge his theme. He began to discuss American publicity; international trade and the different conditions in America and Australia; and Girling, as he sat there listening, found himself more interested than he had ever been for months. He had been so long away from business. And when you got down to brass tacks was there a thing in the world half as thrilling? It was a game, the most exciting, and the highest prized. Your wits against the other man's. And as he sat there listening, Girling felt an itch to be back in that eager competitive society. He had always found that he did his best thinking when he was listening. Something said suggested a train of thought, and as the Australian's conversation rattled on an idea came suddenly to Girling for the launching of the new model his firm had been designing for the autumn. The exact note of publicity to get. He saw it; he knew it. Get a good artist to illustrate it, and for a few months anyhow they'd have everyone upon the market beat. His blood began to pound hotly through his veins.
And then, suddenly, he remembered: that there was going to be no return to London; there was going to be a selling of shares and the building of a bungalow: a succession of quiet days spent quietly; and an immense depression came on him, such a depression as one feels on waking from a pleasant dream: a depression that was followed by such asensation of relief as one feels on waking from a nightmare. “It wasn't true. None of it had happened yet.”
And while the Australian chattered on, Ray Girling leant forward across the table, his head upon his hands. What did he want, to go or to stay? To go or stay? For he realised that he must make a choice, that it must be either England or Tahiti: that the one was precluded by the other. And was it really, he asked himself, that he was weary of the strife of London, that the secret of Polynesia was worth the surrender of all that until now he had held to make life worth living? Was it anything more than a mood, the bewitching effect of moonlight and still water and a pretty girl that was luring him to this Pacific Eden?
“I must think,” he thought. “I mustn't decide hurriedly. Whatever happens, I must give myself time to think.”
Even as he decided that, he saw on the other side of the street beside the schooners, the trim, dainty figure of Colette. She was carrying a parasol: her head was bared, he saw all the daintiness of that shingled hair, and he caught his breath at the thought of saying “Good-bye” to so much charm and gentleness.” I'm not in love with her,” he thought. “But in two days if I were to see more of her I should be. And if I were to fall in love with her, it would be in a way, I believe, that I'm never likely to be again. I shall be saying good-bye to a good deal if I catch theLouqsor.”
That catching of his breath, however, had warned him that it must not be in Papeete that his decision must be come to. If he were to stay on at Gustave's, with the certainty of seeing Colette again in a day or two, he knew only too well that he would commit himself irremediably.
“Whatever happens,” he said, “I must get away for a week and think.”
It is about forty miles from Papeete to Tautira, and every afternoon Gustave's truck, a vast van of a Buick, lined with seats, makes the rocking three hours' journey there along the uneven island road. It is an uncomfortable, but by no means unpleasant journey. As the car jolted on past Paieatowards Papiieri a feeling of assuagement descended on the turmoil of Girling's spirit. He had been wise, he felt, to make this journey. Things were moving too fast for him in Papeete. He had need of the rest and quiet of the districts. He was carrying a letter of introduction to the chief, who would find room for him somewhere in his bungalow, and there would be long lazy mornings reading on the verandah, bathing in the lagoon, with tranquil evenings in the cool of the grass-grown pathways.
It was very warm inside the truck. Every seat was occupied, and since all the gossip had been exchanged and it was too hot for the effort of conversation, one of the drivers had taken out his accordion and was playing softly. Already they had left behind them the more formal districts; Papara and Paiea and Mataiea. They had passed the narrow isthmus of Taravao; the scenery was growing wilder. There had been little attempt made here to keep the gardens tended. Bungalows had been set down apparently at hazard, among the tangle of fruit and flowers; the women who were stretched out on mats on the verandahs no longer wore the European costume. It was over the white and red of the pareo that their black hair fell. In some such Tahiti as this it was that Loti loved. But it was vaguely that Girling was conscious of the landscape. His eyelids had grown heavy; tired by bright colours. His head began to nod.
He woke with a start and to the sound of laughter. “I make nice pillow?” a voice was asking him. And blinking he realised that his head had sunk sideways on to the shoulders of the girl who was beside him. She was tall and handsome, a typical Tahitian, with fine eyes and hair, and a laughing mouth.
“I'm so sorry,” he began.
She only laughed, called out something in Tahitian to the driver, and taking Girling by the wrist, drew him back towards her.
“Bye-bye, baby,” she said.
But Girling was now wide awake: vividly conscious of the girl beside him. Her coloured cotton dress was bareabove the elbow, and through the thin silk of his coat he could feel the full, firm texture of her skin. She was strong and healthy with the glow and strength of native blood. Beneath her wide-brimmed, flower-wreathed straw hat she was laughing merrily, and as he leant a little more heavily against her arm she giggled and again called out in Tahitian to the driver. There was a ripple of laughter through the truck. Girling, flushing uncomfortably, drew away; but the girl smiled friendlily and drew him back.
“No, no,” she said, “you tired, you sleep.”
There was no sleep, though, now for him. But lest the excuse for nearness would be taken from him, he half closed his eyes and leant sideways against the soft, strong shoulder, conscious with a mingling half of excitement, half of fear that each minute was bringing them nearer to Tautira, that he and this girl would be close neighbours. It was not till they were within two hundred yards of the chief's house that she jerked her knee sideways against his.
“Wake up now,” she cried. “My house here.”
She stretched out her hand to him and as he took it, her fingers, closing over his, pressed lightly for a moment. Her fine bright eyes were glowing, her full, wide mouth was parted in a smile. He hesitated, wondering whether to let the incident close. He decided to. They were in the same village, after all. They were bound to be seeing each other again. As the car rolled on along the road he leant out of the window to look back at her. She, too, had turned and, standing in the garden before her bungalow, waved her hand at him.
If all Tahiti is a garden then is Tautira Tahiti's garden. There still lingers something of the Polynesia that was before traders had corrupted and missionaries destroyed the faith of that gentle people. There is no white man living in Tautira. The roads are overgrown with grass. There are no fences and no boundary lines. Hens and pigs wander about the gardens and paths and houses as they choose. They will find their way home at evening. There is no one who couldbe troubled to steal. And since the meat market of Papeete is many miles away, the natives still live upon the produce of their hands: the fish they catch and spear and bread-fruit that they bake.
The chief, a large, strong-hewn figure, clad only in apaco,although he had not received a white visitor for several months, received Girling with no excitement or surprise, with a simple, unaffected welcome.
It would be quite easy, he said, to prepare a room for him; and there would be some dinner ready in about an hour. He would not, he feared, be able to join him at it, for he had to supervise the evening's haul of fish. But they would have a long talk next day at lunch-time. He had served in the French army during the War, winning the MÃ©daille Militaire; they would doubtless have experiences to exchange. And with extreme courtesy he had left him.
It was cool and quiet in the house. But for all that the air was soft and the sunset a glow of lavender behind the palms, there was no peace for the spirit of Ray Girling. He was restless and ill-at-ease; his mind was busy with thoughts of the tall, bright-eyed girl, and after dinner, as he walked out along the beach, the memory of that firm, soft shoulder was very actual to him.
Should he be seeing her, he wondered; the chief had explained to him where the nets were being hauled ashore. As likely as not the greater part of the village would be assembled there. But probably she would have some other man with her. He had been a fool not to have spoken to her on the truck. Then had been his chance and he had let it slip. That is, if he had wished to be availed of it. And did he? He did not know. There were so many rival influences at work. He knew the speed of coconut wireless, how quick gossip was to spread. Days before he had left Tautira Colette would have heard of his adventure. He could not return to her after it. It would mean the end for ever of any thought of staying permanently on the island. For he knew that between himself and a girl such as the one he had sat next in the truck there could be no permanent relationship. There could beno question of love between them, on his side, anyhow. Very speedily he would have exhausted the slender resources of her interest. Nor, indeed, would she herself expect anything but a Tahitian idyll. Tahitians were used to the coming and going upon ships. She would weep when he went away, but though there is tear-shedding there is no grief upon the Islands. She would console herself soon enough. If he were to yield to the enchantment of time and place he would have in the yielding answered that problem which had perplexed him. But did he want to? He did not know. Against the heady hour's magic was set the fear of loss: the loss of Colette, and also insidiously but painfully the loss of health. What did he know, after all, about this girl? And in that moment of indecision, in the forces that went to the framing of that indecision, he appreciated to the full in what manner and in what measure the coming of the white man had destroyed the simple beauty he had found. Even here one had to be cautious, to weigh the consequences of one's acts. And as he strolled beneath the palm trees to where he could see dark groups of clustered figures, he pictured that vanished beauty; pictured on such an island on such a night, some proud pirate schooner drawing towards the beach; pictured the dark-skinned people running down to welcome them, the innocence and friendliness of that hospitality; pictured the singing and the dancing, the large group breaking away gradually into couples, the slow linked strolling beneath the palms, the kissing and the laughter; the returning to the clean, fresh bungalows; the loving while loving pleased. And that was finished. Gone, irrecapturable, never to be found again upon this earth; never, never, never.
Still undecided, he walked on to take his place among the crowd gathered upon the beach.
It was a homely scene; the long row of men hauling at the nets, shouting and encouraging each other, and the women seated upon the sand, clapping their hands with pleasure as the fish were poured, a leaping, throbbing mass, into the large, flat-bottomed boats. Girling had not been standing there long before a hand had been laid upon his arm and alaughing voice was asking him: “Well, you not sleepy now?”
She had seemed attractive enough to him on the truck, but now hatless, with her dark hair flung wide about her shoulders, there was added a compelling softness to her power. And as he looked into her eyes, bright and shining through the dusk, her lips parted in a smile over the shining whiteness of her teeth, he felt that already the problem and his perplexity had been taken from him: that life had found his answer.
They sat side by side together on the bottom of an upturned boat: very close so that her shoulder touched him: so that it seemed natural for him to pass his arm about her waist, for his fingers to stroke gently the firm, soft flesh of her upper arm. Afterwards, when the nets had been hauled in and the division of the fish arranged, they strolled arm in arm along the beach. From the centre of the village there came a sound of singing. In front of a Chinese store Gustave's truck had been arranged as a form of orchestral stand, the drivers had brought out their banjos, and on the wooden verandah of the store a number of young natives were dancing. They would sing and shout and clap their hands, then a couple would slither out into the centre and standing opposite each other would begin to dance. They would never dance more than a few steps, however. In less than a minute they had burst into a paroxysm of laughter, would cover their faces with their hands and run round to the back of the circling crowd.
“Come,” said the girl, and taking Girling by the hand, she led him up into the truck. It was a low seat and they were in the shadow; then the moment they were seated, without affectation, she turned her face to his, expressing in a kiss, as such sentiments were meant to be expressed, the peace and happiness of a Tahitian evening. And the moon rose high above the palm trees, lighting grotesquely the jagged peaks of the hills across the bay. The breeze from the lagoon blew quietly. Through the sound of the singing voices he could hear the undertone of the Pacific on the reef. Slowly, wooingly, the sights and scents and sounds that havefor centuries in this fringe of Eden stripped the doubter of all thoughts of consequences, lulled Girling's doubts to rest. For a long while they sat there in the shadow of the car, her chin resting against his shoulder, his fingers caressing gently the soft surface of her cheek and arm.
“Tired?” she asked, at length.
He nodded. “A little.”
“Then we go. You come with me?”
The question was put without any artifice or coquetry, as though it were only natural that thus should such an evening end.
His heart was thudding fiercely as they walked, quickly now, and in silence, down the path between low hedges towards her home. When they reached the verandah she lifted her finger to her lips. “Sh!” she said. “Wait.”
There was a rustle, and a sound of whispers; the turning of a handle, the noise of something soft being pulled along the floor, then a whispered “Come,” and a hand held out to him.
It was very dark. From the verandah beyond came the sound of movement. As he stepped into the room his toe caught on something, so that but for her hand he would have fallen. He stumbled forward on to the broad, deep mattress. For a moment he felt an acute revulsion of feeling. But two arms, cool and bare, had been flung about his neck, dark masses of hair scented faintly with coconut were beneath his cheek; against his mouth, soft and tender were her lips. His arm tightened about the firm, full shoulders, the tenderness of his kisses deepened, grew deep and fierce.
That people is happy which has no history. There are no details to a Tahitian idyll.
There was a bungalow, half-way towards Ventura. It was small enough, two rooms and a verandah, with little furniture; a table, a few chairs, a long, low mattress-bed, but there was a stream running just below it from the mountains; cool and sweet. Here at any hour of the dayyou could bathe at will. And there was green grass running down towards the sand; from the verandah you looked outwards towards Moorea, over the roof were twined and intertwined the purple of the bougain-villea, and the red and white and orange of the hibiscus, across the door was the gold and scarlet of the flamboyant, and when you have these things, you do not need furniture or pictures or large houses.
During the three months that he lived there Ray Girling went but rarely into Papeete, and during them he came as near as perhaps any sojourner can to understanding the spirit of Tahiti. It was a lazy life he led. When he was not bathing, he would lie out reading on the verandah; he ate little but what came from within a mile of his own house. Bread and butter came certainly from the town, but that was all. Once or twice a week he and Pepire would go up the valleys to collect enough lemons and bread-fruit and bananas to last for days. And her brother and cousin would always be coming from Papeete or Tautira, so that it was rare for Girling to wake in the morning without finding some visitors stretched out asleep on the verandah. They were profitable guests, however, for in the evening they would sail towards the reef and spear fish by torchlight or else they would go shrimping up the valleys, and afterwards, while Pepire would prepare the food, they would sit round with their banjos, singing.
And he was happy; happier than he had ever been. Had he not known that he was leaving in three months he would have probably looked forward with apprehension to the time when Pepire would have begun to weary him. As it was, he could accept without fear of consequences the day's good things. As Europe understands love he did not love her. He cared for her in the same way that he might have cared for some animal. And indeed, as she strode bare-footed about the house and garden she reminded him in many ways of a cumbersome Newfoundland puppy. Her behaviour when she had transgressed authority was extraordinarily like that of a dog that has filched the cutlets. On one occasion she went into Papeete with a hundred-franc note to buy sometwenty-five francs' worth of stores. When Girling came in from his bathe, he found her standing with her hands behind her back, gazing shamefacedly at the pile of groceries on the table beside which she had laid a ten-franc note.
“Well, what's that?” he asked.
“The change,” she told him.
“But how much did all that cost?”
“And ten makes thirty-seven, and fifteen for the truck, that's fifty-two. What's happened to the other forty-eight?”
She made no reply, but sheepishly and reluctantly she drew her hands from behind her back and produced the four metres of coloured prints with which she proposed to make a frock.
She was always surprising him in delightful ways. There was the occasion when he returned from Papeete with a rather pleasant Indian shawl. She surveyed it with rapture, but before she had thanked him she asked the price. And whenever any visitor came the first thing she would do would be to run and fetch the shawl and display it proudly with the words: “Look. He gave me. Five hundred francs!”
“I wonder,” thought Girling, “whether the only difference between an English and a native girl is that what an English girl thinks a Tahitian says, and what an English girl says a Tahitian does?”
It was only on occasions that he would wonder that. In the deeper things he realised how profound was the difference between Brown and White. Had they been English lovers, loving under the shadow of separation, their love-making would have been greedy, fierce and passionate. But passion is a thing that the Islanders do not know, The Tahitians are not passionate. They are sensual and they are tender, but they are not passionate. Passion, though it may not be tragic, is at least potential tragedy, and tragedy is the twin child of sophistication. For Pepire, kisses were something simple and joyous and sincere. And yet during the long nights when she lay beside him Girling would wonder whether he would ever know in life anything sweeter than this love,so uncomplicated and direct. Intenser moments certainly awaited him, but sweeter â¦? He did not know.
Once only during those weeks did he see Colette. A brief, pathetic little meeting. He had gone into the library at Papeete to change a book, and as he stood before the shelves, turning the pages of a novel, she came into the shop. It would have been impossible for them not to see each other.
“What ages since we met!” she said, and she, as well as he, was blushing.
“I don't come in often now,” he said. “I'm living in the country.”
In those two syllables were conveyed all that his living in the districts meant.
“You're still going by theLouqsor?”
And in that question was implied that other question. How seriously was he taking his new establishment?
“Oh, yes, in another three weeks now.”
“Then I'll see you then if not before.”
With a bright smile she turned away, that, and no more than that.
And so the days went by.
Wistfully for him now and then.
For the closer that Ray Girling grew to the Tahitian life, the wider, he realised, was the chasm between him and it. He would never find the key to Tahiti's magic. And soon there would be no mystery left to find. A few years and Tahiti would be a second Honolulu. She was self-condemned. Somehow she had not had the strength to withstand the invader. And, looking back, it seemed to him symbolic that it should have been by the spirit of Tahiti that his determination to settle in Tahiti had been foiled. For it was the spirit of Tahiti expressed momentarily in Pepire that had entrapped him into the weakness that had made a permanent settlement there impossible. The fatal gift of beauty. It was by her own loveliness, her own sweetness, her own gentleness, that Tahiti had been betrayed. And yet it wasback to the sweetness that it had destroyed, that ultimately the course of progress must return.
The monthly arrival of the American courier is the big event in the island life.
But, for all that, it is only on the departure of those rarer visitants, theLouqsorand theAntinous,that you get the spirit of an island leave-taking. For Tahiti is a French possession, and it is from the taffrail of the Messageries Maritimes boats that the French, who are the real Tahitians, who by long sojourning have identified themselves with the island life, wave their farewells to the nestling waterside,
For beauty and pathos there is little comparable with those last minutes of leave-taking. When the great liners sail from Sydney the passengers fling paper streamers to the waving crowds upon the wharf; but in Papeete there is no such attempt to prolong to the last instant the sundering tie. For those that were your friends upon the island have hung upon your neck the white wreath of thetiareand the stiff yellow petal of the pandanus, so that your nostrils may for all time retain the sweet perfume of Tahiti; and over your shoulders they have hung long strings of shells, so that you will retain for ever the soft murmur of the breakers on the reef, and it is not till you have forgotten those that you will forget Tahiti.
No ship has looked more like a garden than did theLouqsorin the January of 1927. There were many old friends to wave farewell from its crowded decks, some who were saying good-bye for ever, if anyone can ever be said to say good-bye for ever, since for all time the memory of that green island will linger green. There were others who were going to France on leave for a few months. The Governor of the Island was returning to Paris for promotion. There were a number of officials; three or four naval officers; and on the lower decks a large group of sailors from theCasiopereturning to Marseilles. It was a gay sight. A squad of soldiers had lined up to salute the Governor, a band was playing, thesailors were singing farewell to their five days' sweethearts.
Ave, Ave, te vahini upipiE patia tona, e pareo repo.
A few yards from Ray Girling, Colette, frail and dainty, was smiling wistfully at him from beneath the shadow of her parasol. As he saw her he turned away from the crowd with whom he was gossipingâPepire, Tania, and the restâand came across to her.
She received him with a smile.
“Do you remember saying four months ago that you'd be heartbroken when the time came for you to leave?”
“And are you?”
He hesitated, for as he looked down into the flower-like face he knew the measure of his loss, knew what he had missed, what there had been for finding; knew also how impossible it would have been to find it, since certain things precluded other things, since that which he had been looking for bore no relation to the practical ordering of life. When he answered, though it was in terms of Tahiti that he spoke, it was of himself and her that he was speaking.
“As long as I live I shall remember,” he said, and his voice was faltering. “And there'll be a great many times, I know, when I shall regret bitterly that I ever came away. But I shall know, too, that it would have been madness for me to have stayed. I came at the wrong time. If I'd come as a boy of twenty, before I'd begun European life, I could have stayed. Or I might have stayed if I'd come as a middle-aged man, a man of fifty, who'd lived through all that. But I came at the half-way stage. I've taken root over there. I've identified myself with too many things. I've got to work to the end of them.”
She nodded her head slowly. “I understand,” she said. “I think I always did understand.” Then, after a pause and with eyes that narrowed, and in a voice that trembled:
But from the deck a bell was ringing. The friends of the passengers were crowding down the ladder; from thetaffrail those who were leaving were slowly waving their farewells; the band was playing, the squad of soldiers were presenting arms, the sailors on the lower deck were singing. Slowly, yard by yard, theLouqsordrew out into the lagoon, the crowd was drifting from the quay, the tables in the Mariposa CafÃ© were filling up, officials were bicycling back to their offices, there was a lazy loitering along the waterside under the gold and scarlet of the flamboyants. A canoe was being launched, some children were bathing in front of Johnnie's. Papeete was returning to its routine. Some friends had come. Some friends had gone. A new day had started.
With a full heart Ray Girling leant over the taffrail. Was he happy or was he sad? He did not know. The strong winds of the Pacific were on his cheeks. He thought of London and his friends; of a life of action; the thrill of business; the stir of ideas and interest. Oh, yes, he would be glad enough to get back to it. But though his blood was beating quicker at the thought, the wreaths of pandanus andtiarewere about his neck, and the sweet, rich scents were in his nostrils; and before his eyes, in the soft shadow of a parasol, was a flower-like face, with eyes that narrowed; and in his ears was the sound of a voice that trembled: “Tahiti waits.”IIILa Martinique
It was while I was on my way to Panama, on my second visit to the South Seas, that I first saw Martinique. Out of a blue sky the sun shone brightly on to a wide square flanked with mango trees, on to yellow houses, on to crowded cafÃ©s. And here I thought, maybe, is another and a less far Tahiti. An island in the tropics, under French rule, as far north of the line as was Tahiti south of it. I shall come back here one day, I told myself.
Now, having returned, I am wondering whether it would be possible for two islands to be more different. Their very structure is unlike. They are both mountainous, but whereas the interior of Tahiti is an unpathed, impenetrable jungle, every inch of Martinique is mapped. Nor is West Indian scenery strictly tropical. In Martinique the coconut and the banana are not cultivated systematically. The island's prosperity depends on rum and sugar. And as you drive to Vauclin you have a feeling, looking down from the high mountain roads across fields, green and low-lying, to hidden villages, that you might be in Kent were the countryside less hilly. The aspect of the villages is different. Whereas Tautira is like a garden, with its grass-covered paths, its clean, airy bungalows, its flower-hung verandahs, it is impossible to linger without a feeling of distaste in the dusty, ill-smelling villages of Carbet and Case Pilote, with their dirty, airless cabins, their atmosphere of negligence and squalor. In Tahiti the fishing is done for the most part at night, by the light of torches, on the reef, with spears. In Martinique it is done by day with weighted nets. In Martinique most of the land is owned by a few families. In Tahiti nothing is muchharder to discover than the actual proprietor or any piece of ground. Proprietorships have been divided and redivided, and it is no uncommon thing for a newcomer who imagines that he has completed the purchase of a piece of land to find himself surrounded by a number of claimants, all of whom possess legal right to the ground that their relative has sold him. Scarcely anybody in Tahiti who derives his income from Tahiti has any money. In Martinique there are a number of exceedingly wealthy families. On the other hand, whereas the Tahitian is described as a born millionaire, since he has only to walk up a valley to pick the fruits and spear the fish he needs, the native in Martinique, where every tree and plant exists for the profit of its proprietor, lives in a condition of extreme poverty. The Tahitian woman lives for pleasure. She does hardly any work. By day she lives languidly on her verandah, and by night, with flowers in her hair, she sings and dances and makes love. The woman of Martinique is a beast of burden. When the liner draws up against the quay at Fort de France you will see a crowd of grubby midgets grouped round a bank of coal. When the signal is given they will scurry like ants, with baskets upon their heads, between the ship's tender and the bunk of coal. The midgets, every one of them, are women. They receive five sous for every basket they carry. When there is no ship in port they carry fish and vegetables from the country into town. There is a continual stream of them along every road: dark, erect, hurrying figures bearing, under the heavy sun, huge burdens upon their heads. In Tahiti there exists a small, formal, exclusive French society, composed of a few officials and Colonial families, who hold occasional receptions, to which those who commit imprudences are not received. I imagine, at least, that it exists. But the average visitor is unaware of its existence. It is uninfluential. In Martinique, too, there is such a society composed of a few Creole families. It is very formal and very exclusive. Its SundaydÃ©jeunerlasts, I am told, till four o'clock. It is also extremely powerful and holds all the power, all the land and most of the money in the island. Tahiti is a pleasure ground; Martinique is a businesscentre. The atmosphere of Tahiti is feminine; of Martinique masculine. In Fort de France everyone is busy doing something: selling cars, buying rum, shipping sugar. Whereas social life in Papeete is complicated by the ramifications of amorous intrigue, in Fort de France it is complicated by the ramifications of politics and commerce. “Life here is a strain,” a young dealer said to me. “One has to be diplomatic all the time. One has business relations of some sort with everybody.” In Papeete it is “affairs” in the English sense; in Fort de France in the French sense. No one who has not lived in a small community, each member of whom draws his livelihood from the resources of that country, can realise the interdependence of all activities, the extent to which wheels revolve within one another. Everyone has some half-dozen irons in everybody else's grate. In Tahiti the only people who are in a position to spend money are the tourists who stay over between two boats and the English and Americans who have come to spend a few months on the island every year. In Tahiti there is accommodation for the tourist. In Moorea there is a good hotel. There are bungalows to be let by the month within four kilometres of Papeete. In the country there are several places where you can spend a few days in tolerable comfort. In Martinique there are no tourists. Between January and March some dozen English and American liners stop at St. Pierre. Their passengers drive across the island to Fort de France, where they rejoin their ship. That is all. There is no accommodation for the tourist. In Fort de France there is no hotel where one would spend willingly more than a few hours. In the country there is no hotel at all. As far as I could discover there was not in the whole island a single foreign person who lived there out of choice. Finally, the native population of Tahiti is freeborn; that of Martinique has its roots in slavery. You have only to walk through a native village to realise the difference that that makes. In Fort de France, which is cosmopolitans you do not notice it. But in the country, where day after day you Will not see one white face, you grow more and more conscious of a hostile atmosphere; you feel it in the glances ofthe men and women who pass you in the road. When you go into their villages they make you feel that they resent your presence there. You are glad to be past their houses. They will reply to your “Good mornings” and “Good evenings,” but they do not smile at you. Often they will make remarks to and after you. They are made in the harsh Creolepatois.You do not understand what they say. You suspect that they are insulting you. They are a harsh and sombre people. They do not understand happiness. You will hear them at cock fighting, and at cinemas, shrieking with laughter and excitement, but their faces, whenever they are in repose, are sullen. Their very laughter is strained. They seem to recall still the slavery into which their grandparents were sold. It is only eighty years since slavery was abolished. There are many alive still who have heard from their parents' lips the story of those days: the long journey from Africa, “crowded, terrified and cowed, into the pestilent atmosphere of a dark cabin, stagnating between the decks of a Guinea ship, debarred the free use of their limbs, oppressed with chains, harassed with sea sickness and the incessant motions of the vessel, sometimes stinted in provisions and poisoned with corrupted water”: afterwards on the plantations there were the chains and lashes. And it is all only eighty years ago. These people have still the mentality of slaves, with only the Australian aborigines below them in the scale of human development. They harbour in their dull brains the heritage of rancour. They are exiles. Under the rich sunlight and the green shadows their blood craves for Africa. They are suspicious with the unceasing animosity of the undeveloped. They cannot believe that they are free. In their own country they were the sport and plunder of their warlike neighbours. It was the easy prey that the pirate hunted. They cannot believe that the white strangers who stole them from their dark cabins have not some further trick to play on them. They cannot understand equality. They will never allow you to feel that you are anywhere but in a land of enemies. In vain will you search through the Antilles for the welcoming friendliness of Polynesia.
In Martinique there is no accommodation for the tourist. If you are to stay there you have to become a part of the life of its inhabitants. Within two hours of our arrival Eldred Curwen and I had realised that.
“We have got,” we said, “to set about finding a bungalow in the country.”
I am told that we were lucky to find a house at all. Certainly we were lucky to find the one we did. Seven kilometres out of town, between Case Navire and Fond Lahaye, a minute's climb from the beach, above the dust of the main road, with a superb panorama of coast line, on one side to Trois Ilets, on the other very nearly to Case Pilote, it consisted of three bedrooms, a dining-room, a wide verandah over whose concrete terrace workâthe hunting ground of innumerable lizardsâtrailed at friendly hazard the red and yellow of a rose bush, and the deep purple of the bougain-villea. The stone stairway that ran steep and straight towards the sea was flowered by a green profusion of trees and plants; with bread-fruit, and with papaia; the great ragged branch of the banana; the stately plumes of the bamboo; with far below, latticing the blue of the Caribbean, the slender stem and rustling crest of the coconut palm. It was the kind of house one dreams of, that one never expects to find. Yet nothing could have been found with less expense of spirit.
It was the British Consulate that found it for us.
“You want a house,” they said. “That is not easy. We will do our best. If you come to-morrow afternoon we will tell you what we have been able to manage.”
It was in a mood of no great optimism that we went down there. Everyone had shaken their heads when we had told them we were looking for a house.
“Nobody will want to let his house,” we had been told. “A house is a man's home. Where would there be for him to go? And for those who have a house both in the country and the town, well, that means that he is a rich man, that his house in the country is his luxury. There are not manyluxuries available in the Colonies. He would not be anxious to deprive himself of it.”
It sounded logical enough. And when we found two men waiting for us in the Consulate, it was with the expectation of being shown some sorry shack that we followed them into the car. The sight of the house upon the hill was so complete and so delightful a surprise that we would have accepted any rent that its proprietor demanded of us. We were prudent enough, however, to conceal our elation. And three days later we were installed in the bungalow with three comic opera servants, the sum of whose monthly wages in francs can have exceeded only slightly the sum of their united ages.
Our cook, Armantine, received eighty francs. Belmont, the guardian, whose chief duty was the supervison of the water supply and the cutting of firewood, fifty francs. His wife, Florentine, who ran errands, washed plates and did the laundry, had forty francs. It does not sound generous, but it is useless to pay negroes more than they expect. American prosperity is built on a system of high wages. The higher the worker's wages, the higher his standard of living, the higher his purchasing capacity, the greater is the general commercial activity. But the negro in the French Antilles has no ambition; he is quite content with his standard of living. He does not want it raised. If you were to pay him double wages, he would not buy himself a new suit. He would take a month's holiday. A planter once found that however high the wages he offered to the natives, he could not induce them to work. In despair he sought an explanation of an older hand.
“My dear fellow,” he was told, “what can you expect with all those fruit trees of yours? Do you think they are going to work eight hours a day when at night they can pick enough fruit to keep them for half a week?”
In the end, at considerable cost and inconvenience, the planter cut down his fruit trees. Then the natives worked.
Our staff considered itself well rewarded with a hundred and seventy francs a month. And it not only made us comfortable but kept us constantly amused.
Armantine was the static element. She was a very adequate cook, considering the limited resources at her disposal. Meat could only be obtained in small quantities twice a week. Lobster was plentiful only when the moon was full. The small white fish was tasteless. There are only a certain number of ways of serving eggs. And yam and bread-fruit, the staple vegetables of the tropics, even when they are flavoured with coconut milk are uninteresting. It says much for her ingenuity that at the end of six weeks we were still able to look forward to our meals. She was also economical. I have little doubt that our larder provisioned her entire family. But no one else was allowed to take advantage of our inexperience. Resolutely, sou by sou, she contested the issue with the local groceries. I should be grateful if in London my housekeeper's weekly books would show no more shillings than Armantine's showed francs. She was also an admirable foil to Florentine.
Florentine was quite frankly a bottle woman. She was never sober when she might be drunk. Amply constructed, I have never seen a person so completely shapeless. Her face was like a piece of unfinished modelling. With her body swathed in voluminous draperies it was impossible to tell where the various sections of it began. When she danced, and she was fond of dancing, she shook like an indiarubber jelly. Very often after dinner when we were playing the gramophone, we would see a shadow slinking along the wall. On realising that its presence had been recognised it would quiver and giggle, turn away its head and produce a mug sheepishly from the intricacies of its raiment. We would look at one another.
“Armantine!” Eldred would call out. “Here!”
In a businesslike, practical manner Armantine hurried round from the kitchen.
“How much,” we would ask, “has Florentine drunk today?”
Armantine's voice would rise on a crescendo of cracked laughter.
“Too much,” she would reply.
We would look sorrowfully at Florentine and shake out heads, and she would shuffle away like a Newfoundland dog that has been denied a bone. On other evenings Armantine would be lenient.
“Yes,” she would say, “you may give her some to-night.”
So the bottle was got out, the glass was quarter-filled. Florentine never looked at the glass while the rum was being poured. She preferred to keep as a surprise the extent of her good fortune, in the same way that a child shuts its eyes till a present is within its hands. And in the same way that a child takes away its present to open it in secret, so would Florentine, with averted face, hurry round the corner of the house. A minute later she would return; a shiny grin across her face.
“Now I will dance for you,” she would say.
Sometimes she would become unruly as a result of visits to the village. And Armantine would come to us with a distressed look.
“Please,” she would say, “give Florentine some clothes to wash. She earned five francs yesterday. Unless she is employed here, she will go down into the village and get drunk.”
So we would make a collection of half-soiled linen, and sorrowfully Florentine would set about the justifying of her monthly wage.
A grotesque creature, Florentine. But a friendly, but a good-natured one. Once I think she may have been attractive, in a robust, florid, expansive way; the kind of attraction that would be likely to wake a last flicker of enterprise in an ageing heart. For Belmont was very many years her senior. Now he has passed into the kindly harbour of indifference. He does not care what she does. He observes her antics with the same detachment that one accepts the irritating but inevitable excursions of a mosquito. He remains aloof, behind an armour of impressive dignity.
He was one of the most impassive and the most dignified figures that I have ever met. He never hurried. Under the shadow of such a straw hat as one associates with SouthAmerica he moved at a pace infinitely slower than that of a slow-motion film. He possessed a pair of buttonless button boots which can have served no other purpose, so perforated were they, than the warming of his ankles. One day he would wear the right boot. On the next the left. Every fourth or fifth day he would wear neither. Only once did I see him wearing both. That was on New Year's Day. To our astonishment he appeared at breakfast-time in both boots, a straw hat, a flannel shirt buttoned at the neck and a clean white suit. In his hand he carried a bunch of roses. He was going into Fort de France, he explained, to wish the proprietor of the house a happy New Year.
“C'est mon droit,”he said, “comme gardien.”No Roman prÃ¦tor could have boasted more proudly of his citizenship.
Indeed, there was a Roman quality in Belmont. There was something regal about the way he would lean completely motionless for a whole hour against the concrete terrace work, looking out over the sea, and then at the end of the hour walk across to the other side of the verandah to lean there for another hour motionless. And as he slowly climbed the steep stairway from the beach, a long, straight cutlass swinging from his wrist, he looked very like some emperor of the decadence deliberating the execution of a stubborn courtier.
There are two ways of forming an impression of a country. In a few weeks one can only hope to gain a first impression. Very often, if one stays longer, the vividness of that first impression goes. The art of reviewing a book is, I am told, not to read the book carefully. Accurate considered judgment of a book within twenty-four hours of reading it is not possible. A rough idea is all that can be got. And it is usually to one's first impression that ultimately one returns. At the end of ten days in a place I have often felt that I should know no more of it if I were to stay ten years, but that were I to stay ten months the clarity of that first impression would be gone. My sight would be confused with detail, I shouldbe unable “to put anything across.” The tourist has to rely on first impressions. The question is how is that first impression to be best obtained? There are two ways. Either you are the explorer, who leaves no corner unexamined, who hurries from place to place collecting and codifying facts; or else you are the observer. From a secluded spot you watch the life of one section of it pass in front of you. From the close scrutiny of that one section you deduce and generalise. Each way has its merits and demerits. It is a matter of temperament, I suppose. Myself, I have always chosen to let life come to me. And in the mornings as I sat on the verandah of our bungalow I had the feeling that I was watching the life of the whole island pass in review before me.
Northwards and southwards, over St. Pierre and Fort de France there is a rainbow curving, for the rainless is as rare as the sunless day; westwards on the horizon beyond “the bright blue meadow of a bay,” ships are passing: the stately liners of the Transatlantic, with their twin funnels and their high white superstructures; the smaller boats of three or four thousand tons, the innumerable and homely cargoes, broad, black, low-lying with only the white look-out of the bridge above their high-piled decks. Whither are they bound? Northwards for New York, for Jacmel and the dark republics? Southwards for Cristobal, for the silent wizardry of Panama? Afterwards in the blue Pacific will they turn southwards to Peru, and Ecuador, or northwards to the coffee ports of Mexico and Guatemala; to Champerico, where they haul you in baskets up on to the long iron pier that runs out into the sea; to Puerto Angeles, where the lighters are loaded by hand, by natives who splash through the waves, their broad shoulders loaded; to Manzanillo, where for three intolerable days I sat in the shadow of a cafÃ© among squabbling Mexicans, while theCity of San Franciscodischarged an oil tank; Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico? In six weeks' time, who knows, these broad beams may be swinging through the Golden Gate, there may be passengers there who six weeks from now will be looking down fromthe high window of the St. Francis on to the lights and animation of the little square. Whither are they bound, those nameless cargoes? Hour after hour I would watch them pass and repass upon the horizon.
Sometimes, in a state of high excitement, Armantine would come rushing from the kitchen. “Regardez! Touristes Americains!” Slowly, in the majesty of its twenty thousand tons, the vast ship would be moving southwards. Shortly after breakfast it discharged its passengers at St. Pierre. For a little they wandered among the ruins, then in a fleet of cars they hurried over the Southern road to Fort de France. For an hour or so they will assume control of it. With cameras in their hands they will stroll through the town as though it were an exhibition. They will peer into private houses. They will load themselves with souvenirs, with shouts of laughter they will call each other's attention to such sights as will appear to them remarkable. They will consider fantastically humorous their attempts to make themselves understood in pidgin French. For an hour, buying, examining, commenting, they will parade the town. Then, with a sigh of relief, they will consider their educational duty to themselves acquitted. It is time the fun began.
“Let's go some place and enjoy ourselves,” they say.
As likely as not they will choose the CafÃ© Bediat. It is lunch-time. But they do not bother about food. You can eat anywhere. You can eat in Ogden and Omaha and Buffalo. You do not come all the way to Martinique to eat.
“Rhum; compris rhum? Beaucoup,”they will tell the waitresses.
There is no nonsense about their drinking. They do not spoil good liquor with ice or lime or syrup. This isn't bootleg gin. They know how to treat the real stuff when they meet it. They take it straight. A port glass of neat rum in the one hand, a tumblerful of ice water as a chaser in the other, they set about the serious business of their trip. By the time the last siren of their steamer goes half the men and three quarters of the women are drunk. In a country where you can drink all you want for two francs and as much as youcan carry for four, they toss their hundred-franc notes upon the table.
“Ah, don't bother about that,” they say, as the waitress fumbles in her pocket. “If you can find any use for that flimsy pink stuff, you cling on to it.”
Laughing and shouting, arm in arm, they sway towards the ship, having in one small section of the globe done their country's name more damage in four hours than her statesmen and engineers and artists can do it good in as many years. To-morrow they will pass the day comparing “hang-overs.” Who are these people, what are they, where do they come from? In America itself one never sees them.
Far on the horizon the large ships pass; the liners, the tourists, and the cargoes. Nearer the shore is the little tug that plies between St. Pierre and Fort de France. It carries mail and cargo and a few passengers, stopping at Belfontain and Carbet and Case Pilote. At Carbet there is a little pier against which the tug is wharfed. But at Belfontain and Case Pilote and St. Pierre small boats row out to it. A fierce conflict is always staged about the ladder. The boat that gets its cargo and passengers discharged first will get back to the shore in time for another load. No soonerâhas a boat got into position beside the ladder than another boat enfilades it, creeping closer to the side of the ship; it tries to elbow it out into the sea. It is a form of aquatic spillikins: the object of the game being to displace the other boat without upsetting its passengers and cargoes into the water. The sailors shriek at each other like baseball players. It is a damp and noisy game. The last time I made such an excursion I offered our boatman double fare if he would wait till last. He shook his head. The game was greater than the reward.
Four or five times a day the little tug passes across the bay. And between it and the shore are always a number of fishing boats. For the most part in Martinique they fish with nets. The nets are long and about ten feet deep. One side of thenets is strung with cork, the other is weighted. Two canoes, rowing outwards from one another, swing the net into a circle. To bring the fish to the surface they throw stones into the circle and beat the water with their oars. Then gradually, foot by foot, they draw in the nets.
They are small fish for the greater part and most of them are sent into the market at Fort de France. From my verandah in the morning, I watch the girls coming over the hill from Fond Lahaye, carrying baskets of them upon their heads. In one of his loveliest essays Lafcadio Hearn has described the life of “La Porteuse”: the girl who is, in comparison with theCharbonniÃ©re,as is the race-horse to the cart-horse; who for thirty francs a month travelled her thirty miles a day, who was trained from childhood to her profession, whose speed was so fast that an averagely strong walker could not keep pace with her for fifteen minutes. In those days all the trade of the island was in her hands. But it was forty years ago that Hearn lived under the shadow of Mont PelÃ©e; to-day the truck and the lorry have taken the place very largely of “La Porteuse”.The big plantations have no need for her. It is only from the small estates and the fishing villages that morning after morning the young island women are sent out, their heads laden, into Fort de France In a few years “La Porteuse” will have vanished. But the sight of those slim, upright, exquisitely proportioned girls moving in a smooth, fast stride under their heavy loads is still one of the most picturesque features of the island.
Now and again one or other of them pauses in the roadway below the bungalow.
“Armantine!” she calls out, “I have fish.”
We sign to her to come up, and without the least appearance of effort she climbs the long, steep flight to lay down her charge on the top step of the verandah. Usually it is a basket of small fish. And nothing is more deceptive than the small fish of the tropics. There they lie, an infinite variety of shapes and colours. In appearance not one of them is the same; but in taste they are identical. And their taste is that of dry bread that has been soaked in water. When the moon is fullor waxing, however, it is the langouste that she brings. Then the entire bungalow is stirred into interest. We all gather round the verandah steps: Eldred, myself, Armantine and Florentine. Even Belmont now and again, with a small three months' pig trotting at his heels. We stand in a semicircle, looking at the basket.
“How much?” says Eldred. “That, the little one.”
For here, as in Europe, the taste of the small langouste is delicate.
The girl lifts it up by its tendrils. She examines carefully its flicking tail. “Five francs,” she says. We roar with laughter. “Five francs!” we say. “We bought a far better one than that for four francs yesterday.” The girl turns away her head and the inevitable bargaining begins. Sou by sou we approach a central figure. In the end we get the lobster for four francs fifty. The days are few on which somebody does not bring us something: bread-fruit or coconut or bananas. Once there was a rabbit and once a hare,
Sometimes, sitting quietly on my verandah, I felt that in the course of a day I had seen the whole life of the island pass in front of me. Far on the horizon there are the big ships, the liners and cargoes that maintain contact between it and the world, that bring to it the blood that feeds it: the fabric and machinery it needs; that in exchange carry away the rum and sugar that make it rich. And, closer, there is the little tug plying between St. Pierre and Fort de France, that maintains contact between the various island villages that hill and stream separate from one another. And still nearer, between the tug's path and the shore, are the fishing boats on whom rests the prosperity of those villages, and along the road there are the young girls carrying that produce to its consumer, and on my verandah there is the salesmanship and the unit of exchange.
The whole life of the island in a day.
“I suppose,” said Eldred at the end of our second day at Case Navire, “that sooner or later we shall find the snag to this.”
We never did. Day after day life followed its happy and inexacting course. No routine could have been simpler. In the tropics it is light by six. And before the tug that leaves Fort de France at daybreak had turned the headland before Fond Lahaye I was drinking my morning coffee. By seven I was at work. I remained there for four hours. In London, where one is surrounded by distractions, by the noises in the streets, by telephones, by the morning's post, by one's conversation of the previous evening, by the thought of the party one is going to that night, it is only by the most rigid seclusion that one can hope to concentrate upon one's work. But in the tropics, where there are no distractions, where there are no telephones, no letters, no conversations to remember or look forward to, you welcome the casual interruptions of an island day. You are content enough to hear a gramophone playing behind your shoulder, to discuss in the middle of a paragraph the menu for the day's meal and the extent of Armantine's weekly books; to exchange gossip with Belmont and join in the friendly bargaining round the lobster basket. At eleven I would put away my books, shave, and go to join Eldred Curwen, who would be sunbathing on the beach. It was in a very secluded, shut-in, and unobserved section of the beach that we bathed; so secluded that we thought bathing clothes unnecessary. It cannot, however, have been as secluded as we thought for one morning we found chalked upon our cabin: “They are bathing necked just like worms. Dirty peoples!” We left the writing there, and one evening, a few days later, we found a studious half-caste standing in front of it turning the pages of a pocket dictionary. His face wore a puzzled look.
At half-past twelve we lunched. And with lunch the bad period in the tropical day has started. It is very hot. One's eyes are dazzled by the glare. Most people prefer to go to bed. If you have eaten heavily and taken alcohol at lunch no power on earth can keep your eyelids open if you lie out on a long chair. Most Europeans do siesta, but myself, I have never felt anything but the worse for one. You wake as you do after a heavy night. Even a showerdoes not put you straight. And invariably that hour or so of sleep ruins your night's rest, Myself, I have always found that it is better to lunch lightly, to avoid alcohol till sundown, and after lunch to write letters, play chess or patience; at any rate, to choose an occupation that demands the sitting erect on a hard chair. By three o'clock the worst is over. One is ready for a walk.
I am told that it is dangerous in the tropics to take much exercise. But I have been told that so many things are dangerous in the tropics. I have been told that unless I wore coloured glasses I should get sunstroke through the eyes, and that without a sun helmet through the head. I have been told that if I ate lettuce I should get dysentery; that if I did not eat green vegetables I should catch scurvy. I was told that I should catch elephantiasis bygoingbarefoot. I have been told that unless I wore underclothes I should catch a skin complaint called “dobiage.” I have been told that alcohol is poison, and that whiskey is the only antidote to malaria. Each particular part of the tropics has its particular fad. The French wear sun helmets eighteen degrees north of the Equator; the English wear underclothes on the Equator. We all have our fads. Mine is, I suppose, the refusal to take a siesta after lunch. Anyhow, I have always felt better on the days when, in addition to two good swims, I have done an eight-mile walk.
And there are good walks in Martinique. Even if the roads are appalling the countryside is varied. One section of it is pasture ground. Another is laid out in sugar. There are coconut groves by Carbet. In the extreme south there is practically a desert, where you can find the prickly pear. While high on Balata, in imitation of Montmartre, there is the SacrÃ© CÅur of Martinique, a vast white church that you can see from half the island. There is no lack of walks in Martinique. And by the time that one is back the best hour of the day has started. The sun is low in the sky; there is no glare from the sea nor from the red stone of the verandah; the green of the hills takes on a deeper, almost an unreal, green: though really it is for that hour only during the daythat you see their true colouring. When the sun is high their burnished surfaces are no more than mirrors. It is only in that last hour of daylight that you can realise the incredible deepness of their colouring.
And later, after we had bathed, after the sun had sunk, a rapid red descent into the sea, we would lie out on the verandah in deck chairs, with the violet of the sky darkening and the crickets and lizards beginning to murmur from the hills. We should not talk a great deal. We should be listening with strained ears for the sound of a Rugby's horn. Our only means of communication with Fort de France was a car, a kind of private bus garaged in Case Navire, that carried a passenger or two each morning, ran errands in town, and in the evening brought out a load of passengers and such provisions as might have been ordered by its clients. It was on this car that we relied for our ice, for our bread and for our butter. We never knew when the car would arrive nor how much would have been forgotten. The ice usually appeared. The bread two days in three; the butter perhaps one in four. It was like waiting for rations to arrive during the War. And till the ice had arrived, till the decanter of rum and sugar had been set out, we could not settle down to the peace of a tropic evening, than which I have found nothing in the world more lovely and serene.
Sometimes friends from Fort de France would join us. Suddenly, at about seven o'clock, there would be the hooting of a horn, the flash of lights along a drive, and up the steps a shouting of “We've brought some ice; and some new Sophie Tucker records. So we're hoping that we'll be welcome.”
These visits were always unexpected; such visits always are in Martinique. During our first weeks we invited people for fixed days, made preparation and kept meals back for them. But we soon learnt that in Martinique, when people say “We will come out on Wednesday,” they usually mean “some time in the middle of the week.” So after a while we said, just vaguely, “Come out when you'd like a bathe.” And sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. Andwhen they did it simply meant the adding of an egg or two to the omelette or the opening of another tin. And we would bathe and chatter and play the new Sophie Tucker records and dance on the balcony in a moon-silvered dusk. But whether friends came out or not, by half-past ten the bungalow was quiet and asleep.
Into Fort de France we went as rarely as possible. For that is about the first thing that travel teaches one: that life in a town is just not possible. Of the many tropical towns that I have visited, Penang is the only one in which I should be happy to make a home. It would be surprising, indeed, if it were otherwise. The population of every tropical town is either commercial or administrative. Everyone has a definite reason for being there. There is no leisured class to create an interior world that exists for its own amusement. Since the majority of such towns are of recent growth, there are no interesting buildings, no picture galleries to be seen. In consequence, there is absolutely nothing for the unoccupied tourist to do till offices close at five o'clock and companionship is again at his disposal.
Fort de France was no exception. It is a pretty town. From the balcony of the club you look out over the green stretch of the Savane. On your left is a flanking ofyellowhouses; to your right the blue water of the harbour, the masts of schooners, the red funnels of cargo boats and liners. In front of you, circled by sentinel palms, is the white statue of Josephine, her face turned southwards to the Trois Ilets, where she was born. Fort de France is easily the prettiest town in the Leeward and Windward groups, and it was charitable of fate to divert northwards the cyclone that in the autumn of 1928 raged over the Antilles. At Guadeloupe there was little that cannot be rebuilt. And over Guadeloupe the cyclone raged very mercilessly.
“Heaven knows how we shall get into port to-morrow,” said the captain of thePellerinon the eve of our arrival. “I don't know what there'll be to recognise it by.”
Yet, when we did arrive, Pointe Ã Pitre seemed very little different from the picture that my memory had formed of it. I had only spent a day and a night there on my way toward Panama, but those few hours had left an ineffaceable impression of dejected squalor. With its straight, puddle-spotted streets, its wooden and tin houses, garnished with slipshod balconies, it always looked as though it were about to fall to pieces. It reminded me of the kind of small town in an early Keystone comedy, that was destined every inch of it to be knocked down in the last hundred feet of film. The cyclone, instead of altering Pointe Ã Pitre, seemed to have put it in harmony with itself. In the same way that when you set side by side a photograph of a landscape and a modern painting of it you say of the photograph, “That's what it looks like,” and of the painting, “That's what it really is”; so I walked through Pointe Ã Pitre, remembering Pointe Ã¡ Pitre as it had been sixteen months earlier, as I paused before the battered houses, the piles of masonry and iron, the spreadeagled balconies, the uprooted trees, the twisted bandstand, the unroofed and unclocked cathedral, on to whose floor through innumerable apertures the rain was pouring; “Yes,” I kept saying to myself, of this melancholy provincial town through which the business of life in market and shop and office was continuing in unaltering indolence. “This is how it really is.”
It was not till we got out of Pointe Ã Pitre into the country that we realised what the cyclone had really meant. The effect there was extraordinary. The countryside, with its coconut palms lopped and uprooted, gave the impression of a face that has not been shaved for several days. Like a blunt razor the cyclone had passed over it. As I drove through the wrecked landscape towards Basseterre I thanked Heaven very humbly that it had spared the green Savane, and the white statue and the palm trees guarding it; that in all its beauty and friendliness Fort de France should be waiting there untouched to welcome me.
And yet, lovely though it is, Fort de France is intolerably hot. Set in a basin of hills, its very excellencies as a harbourmake it the less habitable. Not a breath of air reaches it. Everyone who can afford to, lives out of town, in the cool and quiet of the hills. Not only is Fort de France extremely hot, it is also very noisy. The streets are narrow, the cars are many. The chauffeurs drive with the recklessness, but not the skill, of Parisian taximen. When cars were introduced into Northern Siam the sense of speed was so intoxicating to the Laos that in Chiengmai artificial bumps were raised in the main streets to force the chauffeur to drive slowly. I have often wished, as I have seen disaster approaching me at every corner, that the authorities in Fort de France would take the same precautions. But it is doubtful if it would have much effect. If the roads were so bumpy as the scenic railway in San Francisco, I think that the Martiniquaises would continue to rush their fences, trusting blindly in the immunity of one-way streets and a hand rhythmically pressed upon a horn. All the time horns are honking. It is one's last, it is one's first, impression of Fort de France. Long before evening one's head has begun to ache.
The casual traveller, with nothing definite to occupy him, finds his attention concentrated exclusively on the incessant noise. Only during the week-ends is there systematised entertainment.
Every Sunday morning there was cock-fighting. It was worth seeing once. The Gallodrome was a wooden building, arranged in five galleries. On the top gallery there was a piano and a bar. You paid five francs at the door. The pit was about twenty feet across. For the first minute and a half a fight is thrilling. The cocks are introduced to one another by their owners: they are placed on the edge of a circle five feet apart. The instant they are let loose they fly at one another. Quite often in that first leap, with a single blow, one of them is killed. For a moment or two it is a whirlwind of blows and feathers. But after that minute it grows uninteresting. The cocks do not, as in the North of England, wear spurs. They peck wearily at the back of each other'snecks. The chief interest is in the audience: in the half-castes and negroes who bounce excitedly in their seats, who shriek encouragement to the animals, who shout their odds across the pit.
Nominally the fight is to the death; actually it is as long as the cocks will fight. After a quarter of an hour or so they stand, blind and weary, gasping and indifferent, the fight forced out of them. Their owners take them by the wings and place them at the edge of the circle, facing each other, five feet apart. They make no movement. Inside that circle there is a smaller circle. Again the animals are lifted by their wings. They are within a few inches now of one another. They do not move. The crowd yells fiercely. Then suddenly one pecks forward. The other turns away its head. The fight is finished. Pandemonium is released. The negroes jump in their seats and shriek with excitement, waving the francs that they have lost or won, while the owners carry away the cocks, scrape the skins of their heads and legs with a small pocket knife, slit the congested flesh about the neck and pour lemon juice over the wounds, and hope for equal or greater fortune in the following week.
Within five minutes another fight has started.
Cock-fighting is the chief sport in Martinique. Every district has its fight on Sunday.
In the villages there are no cock-pits. The negroes form a rough circle round the cocks, and as the fight moves the circle follows up and down the length of the village street. From a distance it looks like a scrum in Rugby football. Children perch themselves on verandahs and on the roofs of cabins; they shriek with laughter when the cocks fall into a gutter or stumble over a more than ordinarily misplaced cobble-stone. It is a hilarious business. But to see cock-fighting at its best you have to see it at the three big centres, at TrinitÃ©, St. Pierre and Fort de France. In the same way that, although there is a Festa of some sort in every village on the six or seven Sundays before Lent, to see carnival at its best, you have got to go to Fort de France.
For the actual carnival I was at Dominica, And there it was a subdued affair. Two years earlier there had been trouble, a police officer had been beaten very nearly to death. Dominica is a curious place. Once a French possession and geographically a French possession still, it is in feeling more French than English. It is Roman Catholic. The natives speak Creole. Smuggling, that the police are powerless to check, is constantly carried on between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Dominica is the Ireland of the Antilles. It is the loveliest of the islands, and it is the most difficult to manage. It should be prosperous, but blight after blight has fallen on the crops. First coffee was destroyed. Then when the lime industry was establishedâDominica is the centre of Rose's lime juiceâa disease struck that. The country is very mountainous. When Columbus was asked to describe the island he crumpled up a sheet of paper and tossed it on the table. The roads are so bad that fruit cannot be profitably marketed. Dominica is a constant drain on the Imperial Government's exchequer. The more money that is spent there the less settled does life become. Anything might have happened in Roseau during that wild week of carnival had not a gunboat providentially and unexpectedly arrived in harbour. Many stories are told in explanation of that gunboat's presence. It is said that an admiral expressed a wish for grape fruit. There was no grape fruit, he was told. Where could grape fruit be got? Nowhere nearer than Dominica. Could any excuse be devised for sending a gunboat there? Papers were consulted, an American courier had passed two days before. There might be a mail there. That was sufficient excuse when an admiral was hungry. And so at the very moment when Roseau was in the hands of the rebels a gunboat appeared in the harbour. There was no fighting. The crowds dispersed, the sailors were not even aware that there had been any trouble. The sight of the gunboat was enough. In five minutes order had been restored. That evening the admiral ate grape fruit beforeconsommÃ©.
Probably the story is untrue. But the arrival of the gunboat was no less providential on that account. In the following year the carnival was forbidden. And when I was there, though the carnival took place, no sticks were carried, and at six o'clock the streets were cleared. It was an orderly affair. It lasted for two days. In the morning from the hour of nine the streets were patrolled by small groups of men and women with masks and costumes, a drum at their head, at their back a crowd of ecstatic urchins. The costumes were as various as the local store and local wit permitted. There were pierrots and pierrettes, there were sailors and there were cowboys, there were men dressed as women, padded with footballs to give their skirts the effect of a Victorian bustle. Some tried to make themselves appear attractive, the majority tried to make themselves as plain as possible. In Fort de France there were occasional satirists. One afternoon a group of men, dressed up as women in skirts five inches long, had paraded the streets singing “Malpropre baissez la robe.”Most of the songs that are sung at carnival are impromptu references to some local event. The chief song at Roseau commemorated an attempted suicide.
Sophia, drink wine and iodine.Why, why, Sophia?
During the afternoon Roseau echoed the name Sophia. Every shop was shut. Half the population was “running mask.” The stray groups that had shouted down the streets during the morning had joined up into a solid phalanx, seventy yards in length, that marched backwards and forwards, singing and dancing, cracking whips; while separate bands of twenty to a dozen girls, dressed uniformly, marched with small orchestras to solicit alms. Each band represented something. One band dressed in yellow represented Colman's mustard, anotherTitbits,a third, hung with red, white and blue, carrying plates of oranges and maize and bread-fruit, “Dominica Produce.” It was the Martinique carnival on a small scale, exceeded by it in the same way that in its turn Martinique is exceeded by Trinidad. If you want to see streetcarnival go to Port of Spain. But if you want to see that of which street carnival is the symbol you will stay in Fort de France. In white-run sections of the world I never expect to see a more astounding exhibition than the Bal Lou-Lou.
Twice a week, on Saturdays and Sundays, there is a ball, or rather there are several. There is the Palais and the Casino. But it is at the Select Tango that you will see it at its best. There is nothing to tell you that you are to see anything extraordinary. At the end of a quiet street facing a river there is a large tin building. You pay your twelve francs and you are in a long room hung with lanterns and paper streamers. A gallery runs round it, on which tables are set, and at each of whose extremities there is a bar. It is rather like a drill-hall. And as you lean over the balcony you have the impression that you are at a typical provincial palais de danse. You see the kind of people that you would expect to see. On the gallery there are one or two family parties of white people. The white women will not dance. They will look on, and they will leave early. In the hall below are a certain number of your Frenchmen of good family with their dusky mistresses. There will be some white policemen and white soldiers; but for the most part it is a coloured audience of shop assistants, minor officials, small proprietors; typical provincial dance-hall. And at first in the dance itself there is nothing that you would not expect to see in such a place. The music is more barbaric, more gesticulatory; but that you would expect to find. As the evening passes, as the custom at the bar grows busier, the volume of sound increases, but that, too, you would expect. That you have seen before. You grow tired and a little bored. You begin to wonder whether it is worth staying on. Then suddenly there is the wail of a clarionette. A whisper runs round the tables: “Danse du pays.”In a moment the galleries are empty.
It is danced face to face. The girl clasps her arms round the man's neck. The man holds her by the hips. The music is slow and tense. “Le talent pour la danseuse,”wrote Moreau St. Mery, “est dans la perfection avec laquelle elle peut faire
mouvoir ses hanches et la partie infÃ©rieure de ses reins en conservant tout le reste du corps dans un espÃ¨ce d'immobilitÃ©.”The couples appear scarcely to move. In a dance of twenty minutes they will not make more than one revolution of the room. They stand, close clasped and swaying. The music does not grow louder or more fast. It grows fiercer, more barbaric. The mouths of the dancers grow lax; their eyes are clouded, their movements exceed symbol.“La danse s'arrive et bientÃ´t elle offre un tableau dont tout les traits d'abord voluptueux deviennent ensuite laxifs. Il serait impossible de peindre la'chica'1avec son vÃ©ritable caractÃ©re et je me bornerai Ã dire que l'impression qu'elle fait est si puissante que l'africain ou le crÃ©ole de n'importe quelle nuance qui le verrait danser sans Ã©motion passerait pour avoir perdu iusqu'aux derniÃ©res Ã©tincelles de la sensibilitÃ©.”
That is on ordinary evenings. During carnival it is fantastic. A stranger arriving at the Select Tango at one o'clock in the morning would imagine himself mad. He would not believe it possible that in a white-run community the payment of twelve francs at a public turnstile would admit him to such a Bedlam. He would imagine that such spectacles were held behind doors as rigidly guarded as those of the Bal des Quatre Arts. The noise is deafening. The galleries and hall are crowded. Most of the girls are masked. They wear gloves and stockings so that not an inch of dark skin appears. Some of them, it is whispered, are white women in disguise. They might well be. It is a dance in which caste and blood are alike forgotten. Everyone is drunk; not with alcohol, but with music. People are dancing by themselves. They shriek and wave their arms. They seize a partner, dance with her for a moment, then break away. A girl will be dancing by herself. “Un danseur s'approche d'elle, s'Ã©lance tout Ã coup et tombe au mesure presque Ã la toucher. Il recule. Il s'Ãªlance encore, et la provoque Ã la lutte la plus sÃ©duisante”The young Frenchmen in the arms of their mulatto mistresses will parody and exaggerate the antics of the negroes. A woman embraced between two men will be shrieking tofriends up on the gallery. In the thronged centre of the ball couples close-clasped will stand swaying, their feet and shoulders motionless, a look of unutterable ecstasy upon their faces.
But it is not possible to describe the Bal Lou-Lou. The only phrases that would describe it are incompatible with censorship.
Once every five days or so we went into Fort de France, and it was always with a feeling of excitement that we began the day. It was fun after five days of bare legs and open throats to put on trousers and arrange a tie. The seven-kilometre drive assumed the proportion of high adventure; which in point of fact, with a chauffeur such as ours, it was. We felt very like country cousins coming up for a day's shopping as we deposited with the head waiter of the HÃ´tel de la Paix a list of groceries and a vast wooden box in which to store them. There was the excitement of discovering at the photographer's how many of the snapshots we had taken during the previous weeks were recognisable comments on the landscape. And by the time that was finished it would be half-past eleven.
“The club,” Eldred would remark, “will probably not be empty now.”
There was a delightfully welcoming friendliness about the club. There would be certain to be four or five of our friends on the wide, airy verandah looking out over the Savane. We would draw our chairs up into the circle. Hands would be clasped, decanters would be set upon the table. There would be silence while the waitress performed the ritual of mixing a Creole punch: quarter of a finger's height of sugar, two fingers high of rum, the paring of a lime, the rattling of ice. Then talk would begin, friendly, unexacting gossip, the exchange of comment and reminiscence, till the hands of the clock were pointing at half-past twelve, with the world, after a couple of rum punches, appearing a pretty companionable place.
“We ought to come into town more often,” we would say as we hurried lunchwards, down the Rue Perignon. And after five days of eggs and lobster and native vegetables it was fun to eat a ChÃ¢teaubriand that you would certainly not be grateful for in London, and drink avin ordinairewith which even in a New York speakeasy the management would hesitate to serve you. And, “Certainly, we must come in more often,” we would say as we sat over our coffee afterwards on the terrace of the hotel. But it would be no more than half-past one when we would be saying that. And the sun was beating fiercely upon the corrugated iron of the roof; in the street below the cars were honking merrily. For three and a half hours the club was certain to be empty. There was nothing for us to do. We could go to the gramophone shop, of course, and play some tunes. But you cannot stay more than an hour in a shop where you are only going to buy one record and the last two numbers ofLa Sourire.And even an hour leaves you with two and a half hours to be killed. There is the library, of course, and it is a good library. But the heat and the noise make concentration difficult. Usually it ended in a visit to the DÃ©lices du Lido.
“At any rate,” we'd say, “it'll be cool and quiet there.” Whatever the DÃ©lices might not be, on days when there was no boat in it was that.
The actual town of Fort de France is about half a mile from the coaling station; a road shadowed by a tent of trees curves round an inlet of the bay to the Savane; on the left of the road, on boat days, are innumerable vendors of fruit and cakes; on the right a collection of two-storey wooden houses. It is to this that sailors refer when they tell you that Martinique is the loveliest island they have ever seen. It is the only part of the island that most of them ever do see. It is the red light district.
And it is, beyond question, the most picturesque part of the town. At sunset the view across the bay is the loveliest thing I have seen this side of the canal. And in the afternoon even, the DÃ©lices du Lido was about the most pleasant place in the town to sit about in. By the time we left the island wehad come to know the majority of the girls there. They were mulattoesâwhen they were not pure negressesâsimple, smiling, friendly and improvident; laughing and chattering, quarrelling and crying. The kind of girls that one would expect to find in such a place. There was one girl, however, whose presence there was inexplicable. She was one of the ten loveliest women that I have ever seen. She was very young. She could not have been more than twenty. Seeing her in Martinique, one knew that she must have coloured blood in her; but if one had met her in Paris or London one would not have suspected it. She was of the Spanish type. Her features had genuine refinement. Good clothes and a good hairdresser would have made her the kind of woman whose entrance into a London restaurant would have meant the turning of twenty heads. I do not see how in any big town a girl with her appearance would not have been a big success. Yet, here she was in this wretched stew, the associate of lascars and third mates.
What was she doing there? How had she got there? Why was she staying there? They were questions to which I could find no answer. As long as she remained there she was futureless. No man would run the risk of taking her away from such an atmosphere. Sometimes I wondered whether she did not enjoy the sense of superiority that she could exert in such a place. She was by no means an agreeable person. She was arrogant and disdainful; she never hid her contempt for the other girls, on whom she was constantly making cruel and cutting remarks. Such a one might relish the sense of empire that such a setting gave her. Probably, though, that is too involved an explanation. Probably her presence in that one-way street meant nothing more than that she was lazy. It was a problem whose fascination led us most afternoons to the ordering of a series of lime squashes in the DÃ©lices du Lido. But though Fort de France could offer no better entertainment to the tourist, it was an unsatisfactory one.
For soft drinks do you no more good than rum does in the afternoon. You are better without either. I have never spentan afternoon in Fort de France without: envying those who had offices and telephones, letters to be dictated and strings of agents trying to ship their sugar crops. I have never at the day's end, without a feeling of unutterable relief, looked down from the climbing road on to the lighted streets and the lights of the ships at anchor.
One such day in particular I remember. We had come into Fort de France one afternoon, in the mistaken belief that a friend of Eldred's was on theFlandre.We had spent a hot and profitless half-hour walking round an oven-like ship. Coaling was in progress and the coal dust had blown into our eyes and mouths. We were hot, fractious, and uncomfortable. “Let's go and have an orangeade and then get out of this as quickly as possible,” we said. On the steps of the club, however, we ran into the son of its President, Edouard Boulenger.
“What, you fellows here?” he said. “You're just in time. Jump in quick. We're going up to the pit. There's a fight on. A snake and a mongoose.”
It was the first time that I had seen such a fight. There is not actually a great deal to see. It is darkish inside the building, the pit itself is netted over, and through the mesh of wire it is hard to distinguish against the brown sanded floor the movements of the small dark forms. You see a brown line along the sand and a brown shadow hovering. Then suddenly there is a gleam of white; the thrashing of the snake's white belly. For a few moments the brown shadow is flecked with the twisting and writhing of the white whip. Then the brown shadow slinks away. Thefer de lance,the most hostile small snake in the world, is still. There is not a great deal to see. But it is thrilling. There is a taut, tense atmosphere, not only through the fight, but afterwards when the snake has been lifted out of the pit, while its head is cut open and the poison poured into a phial. During a cock-fight there is an incessant noise. Everyone shouts and gesticulates. But there is complete silence during the snake's silent battle. It has a sinister quality. And it is with a feeling of exhaustion and of relief that you come out into the street, into the declining sunlight. You are grateful for the sound of voices.
Longer than usual that evening we sat on the verandah of the club. It was completely dark when we came down its stairs into the Savane. Never had the cool and quiet of the hills been more welcome. Never had a bathe seemed a completer banishment of every harassing circumstance that the day had brought. Low in the sky there was a moon, a baby moon. As we swam it was half moonshine and half phosphorus, the splintered silver that was about us. And even in the north of Siam, after a day of marching over precipitous mountain paths and above flooded paddy fields, I have known no peace more utter than the lying out on the verandah after dinner, watching the moon and the Southern Cross sink side by side into the sea, hearing from every bush and shrub the murmur of innumerable crickets.
Once we went to St. Pierre.
From Fort Lahaye it is a three hours' sail in a canoe, along a coast indented with green valleys that run back climbingly through fields of sugar cane. At the foot of most of these valleys, between the stems of the coconut palms, you see the outline of wooden cabins. So concealed are these cabins behind that faÃ§ade of greenery that were it not for the fishing nets hung out along the beach on poles to dry you would scarcely suspect that there was a village there. Nor, as you approach St. Pierre, would you suspect that in that semicircle of hills under the cloud-hung shadow of Mont PelÃ©e, are hidden the ruins of a city, for which history can find no parallel.
At first sight it is nothing but a third-rate, decrepit shipping port, not unlike Manzanillo or La Libertad. It has its pier, its warehouses, its market; its single cobbled street contains the usual dockside features. A cafÃ© or two, a restaurant, a small wooden shanty labelled “Cercle,”a somewhat larger shanty labelled “Select Tango.” A hairdresser, a universal store. At first sight it is one of many thousand places. It is not till you step out of that main street into the tangled jungle at the back of it that you realise that St. Pierre is, as it has always been, unique.
Even then you do not at first realise it. At first you see nothing but greenery, wild shrubbery, the great ragged leaves of the banana plant, with here and there the brown showing of a thatched roof. It is not till you have wandered a little through those twisted paths that you see that it is in the angles of old walls that those thatched cottages are built, that it is over broken masonry, over old stairways and porticoes, that those trailing creepers are festooned; that empty windows are shadowed by those ragged leaves. At odd corners you will come upon signs of that old life: a marble slab that was once the doorstep of a colonial bungalow; a fountain that splashed coolly through siestaed summers; a shrine with the bronze body broken at its foot. Everywhere you will come upon signs of that old life;le pays des revenants,they called it. With what grim irony has chance played upon the word
But it is not till you have left the town and have climbed to the top of one of the hills that were thought to shelter it, till you look down into the basin of the amphitheatre that contained St. Pierre, and, looking down, see through the screen of foliage the outline of house after ruined house, that you realise the extent and nature of the disaster. No place that I have ever seen has moved me in quite that way.
Not so much by the thought of the twenty-eight thousand people killed within that narrow span: to the actual fact of death most of us are, I think, now a little callous. Nor by the sentiment that attaches itself to any ruin, the sentiment with which during the War one walked through the deserted villages of Northern France, the feeling that here a life that was the scene of many lives has been abandoned; that here, at the corners of these streets, men had stood gossiping on summer evenings, watching the sky darken over the unchanging hills, musing on the permanence, the unhurrying continuity of the life they were a part of. It is not that sentiment that makes the sight of St. Pierre so profoundly solemn. It is the knowledge rather that here existed a life that should be existing nowhere else, that was the outcome of a combination of circumstances that now have vanished from the world for ever. Even Pompeii cannot give you quite that feeling. There were manyPompeiis, after all. Pompeii exists for us as a symbol, as an explanation of Roman culture. It has not that personal, that localised appeal of a flower that has blossomed once only, in one place: that no eye will ever see again.
St. Pierre was the loveliest city in the West Indies. The loveliest and the gayest. All day its narrow streets were bright with colour; in sharp anglings of light the amber sunshine streamed over the red tiled roofs, the lemon-coloured walls, the green shutters, the green verandahs. The streets ran steeply, “breaking into steps as streams break into waterfalls.” Moss grew between the stones. In the runnel was the sound of water. There was no such thing as silence in St. Pierre. There was always the sound of water, of fountains in the hidden gardens, of rain water in the runnels, and through the music of that water, the water that kept the town cool during the long noon heat, came ceaselessly from the hills beyond the murmur of the lizard and the cricket. A lovely city, with its theatre, its lamplit avenues, itsjardin des plantes,its schooners drawn circlewise along the harbour. Life was comely there; the life that had been built up by the old FrenchemigrÃ©s.It was a city of carnival. There was a culture there, a love of art among those people who had made their home there, who had not come to Martinique to make money that they could spend in Paris. The culture of Versailles was transposed there to mingle with the Carib stock and the dark mysteries of imported Africa. St. Pierre was never seen without emotion. It laid hold of the imagination. It had something to say, not only to the romantic intellectual like Hearn or Stacpoole, but to the sailors and the traders, to all those whom the routine of livelihood brought within the limit of its sway. “Incomparable,” they would say as they waved farewell to thepays des revenants,knowing that if they did not return they would carry all their lives a regret for it in their hearts.
History has no parallel for St. Pierre.
And within forty-five seconds the stir and colour of that life had been wiped out.
The story of the disaster is too familiar, has been told toomany times to need any retelling here. The story of those last days when PelÃ©e was scattering cinders daily over Martinique; when the vegetables that the women brought down from the hills to market were dark with ashes; when the RiviÃ¨re Blanche was swollen with boiling mud; when day after day was darkened by heavy clouds: it has been told so often, the story of that last morning that dawned clear after a night of storm forthe grande fÃªteof an Ascension Day: of the two immense explosions that were heard clearly in Guadeloupe, of the voice over a telephone abruptly silenced, of the ship that struggled with charred and corpse-strewn deck into the harbour of St. Lucia, the ship that two years later was to be crushed by ice: of the voice that cried back to the questioner on the wharf, “We come from Hell. You can cable the world that St. Pierre exists no longer.” It has been told so many times.
At eight o'clock a gay and gallant people was preparing on a sunlit morning busily for itsjour de fÃªte.Forty-five seconds later of all that gaiety and courage there was nothing left. Not anything. Certain legends linger. They say that four days later, when the process of excavation was begun, there was found in the vault of the prison a negro criminal, the sole survivor. They say that in a waistcoat pocket a watch was found, its hands pointing to half-past nine, a watch that had recorded ninety useless minutes in a timeless tomb. And there are other stories. The stories of fishermen who set sail early in the morning to return for theirdÃ©jeunerto find ruin there; of servants whom their mistresses had sent out of the town on messages; of officials and business men who left the town on the seventh or sixth of May for Fort de France. They are very like the war stories you will hear of men who returned after a five minutes' patrolling of a trench to find nothing left of their dugout nor the people in it. They are probably exaggerated when they are not untrue. And yet it was these stories, more than even the sight of St. Pierre itself, that made that tragedy actual to me.
“We were,” I was told, “twenty-four of us young people one Sunday on a picnic. We would have another picnic onthe following Sunday, we decided. When that Sunday came there were only three of us alive.”
A European cannot picture in terms of any tragedy that is likely to come to him what that tragedy meant for the survivors of Martinique. It did not mean simply the death of twenty-eight thousand people: or the loss of property and possession, the curtain for many years upon the prosperity of the island. It meant the cutting of their lives in half more completely than would mean for me the destruction of every stone and every inhabitant in London. It meant the loss of half their friends, half their families, half their possessions, half their lives.
“I left St. Pierre on the seventh,” a man told me. “I was to be married on the ninth. I had come into Fort de France, leaving myfiancÃ©ebehind to make some last arrangements. I cannot express the excitement with which I woke on that morning of the eighth. I was twenty-four. She was three years younger. It was the first time that either of us had been in love. And that was the last whole day, I told myself, that I should ever spend alone. It was so lovely a morning, too. Bright and clear. And after one of the worst nights that there can have ever been. Thunder and lightning and unceasing rain. The sunlight was a happy omen. Never had I known, never shall I know, anything like the happiness with which I dressed and bathed and shaved that morning. And then, just as I was finishing my coffee, there came those two explosions. They were terrific. They shook the entire island. But I wasn't frightened. Why should I be? What was there to connect them with PelÃ©e? I went on, as the rest of us did, with what we had to do.
“For a while that morning life went on in Fort de France in its ordinary way. But soon you had begun to notice a worried look on people's faces. The sky was dark; a thin dust in which pebbles were mingled was falling over the town. Rumour had started. There was no news coming through from St. Pierre. The telephone line had been cut suddenly in the middle of a message, at the instant of the two explosions. Since then there had been silence.
“You know how it is when a rumour starts in a small place. The most fantastic stories get about. A porteuse from Carbet had reported that a fisherman had seen flames behind St. Pierre, and no one asked themselves how ever a porteuse could have done the twenty-eight kilometres from Carbet in two hours.
“I tried not to feel frightened. It was absurd to be frightened. No one had been frightened in St. Pierre the afternoon before, when I had left it. Earlier they had been frightened, yes; when those cinders had been falling in the streets, when lightning was flickering about the crater's mouth; when the day was dark with clouds; when the sugar factory by the RiviÃ©re Blanche was being swept away by boiling mud. They had been frightened then. But the scientists had told them there was no need to be afraid. The Governor and his wife had come out there themselves. The cinders had practically stopped falling. It was only old PelÃ©e amusing himself again.
“That was what I told myself. But you know how it is when panic catches hold of a place. By eleven o'clock our nerves had gone. Three hours and still no news, with the wildest rumours flying round, not one of us could work. We sat in the club, forgetting our rum punches, one thought only in our minds. I shall never forget that morning: the suspense, the terror, the uncertainty. Midday and still no message had come through. The boat that had been sent out to make enquiries had not returned. We sat and waited. It was not till one o'clock that we knew.”
He paused and shrugged his shoulders.
“It's twenty-six years ago,” he said. “That's a long time. One can forget most things in that time. One thinks one's heart broken. But it mends. One thinks one's life is over. But it isn't. One goes on living. One makes the best out of what's left. I've not had a bad best, either. I've had a happy marriage. I'm proud of my children. I've made a position. But,” he again shrugged his shoulders, “I don't know that since that day I've felt that anything mattered in particular.”
I think that in that anecdote is expressed what life has been for the whole of Martinique, for the whole of his generation of Martinique. The carrying on with life in face of the feeling that nothing really matters.IV“Gone Native”
In Tahiti, where American and English mailsarrived simultaneously once a month, mail day invariably found one waiting outside the post office. In Martinique, where mails arrived at frequent and irregular intervals, one left the shipping office to forward one's letters as they came. I had no idea even that a boat was in when Armantine appeared one morning, carrying an envelope, across which trailed at varying angles Inez Holden's incredible calligraphy.
As you know [it ran], I never begin or end my letters or answer other people's, though sometimes I just write. “What is it like in the West Indies and are the natives nice?” This is a true quotation of a remark J heard fall from the lips of adÃ©butanteduring dinner the other evening, her hostess having put her next to a young man from “foreign parts.” Actually I have no idea what your life can be like. The tropics to the ungeographical are, of course, as much a mystery as the whole of modern life must always be to the unscientific. I might imagine you as having “gone native” to the tune of barbaric tom-toms, fuzzy hair and prancing niggers, degraded to “white cargo,” or whatever it is However, I am quite open-minded and for all I know it may be much worse still, for you may be doing your best to be a “white man” to the last, clinging to conventions and dressing for dinner stuffed in a stiff shirt every evening in your tropicaloubliette.
Of London and your friends what have I to tell you? I am a very bad medium for news and have become more misanthropic than ever. The other morning the fog lifted and I walked in the park, where I encountered Harold Acton. He was altogether witty and enchanting from every aspect, but so like my imitation of him which once amused you, that it seemed as if my own words were echoing back to me.
It was a longish letter; there was talk of London, of our friends there; of her first novel,Sweet Charlatan,that was in the press.
I am filled with horror at the idea [she wrote], with all the swooning affectations of an actress at her first night, except that mine is not only affectation. Did you feel like this about your first novel? or were you too young to feel self-conscious? or is it so long ago that you've forgotten? And do you really likeSweet Charlatanas much as you said you did? Write and encourage me. Write, even if you can't encourage me. It would amuse me to read of your vast life in the tropics through the diminutive medium of your neat handwriting,
It was the first news that I had had from England for many days. London had begun to seem a very great way off. With a direct vividness that letter brought it back to me. Just as clearly as I could see Inez herself, loitering into Boulestin's in a scarlet coat held round by a black belt, a little carelessly worn, or hurrying back to her flat from a day's flying at the aerodrome, or laughing across a dinner table under the light of candles; just as clearly as I saw her could I see the world she wrote of: its parties and its personalities, its sights and sounds, its many-coloured stir of contacts. It was clear because it spoke of what was familiar. Language is a form of algebra. There must be a comprehended reality at the back of symbol. But what would that letter have conveyed to one who had never left Waikiki? And wondering that, I wondered whether these pages I was writing would convey any clear impression to the untravelled English and American.
For the tropics are completely different from anything that one expects. Out of plays and films and novels, out of the conversation of our friends we build a picture of what life is like between Aden and Sourabaya. We go there and it is not like that at all. When I first sailed for them I had a mental picture very much like that of Inez Holden. On the one hand there was the white man with his dinner jacket and his stiff shirt; on the other the “gone native” cabin, the emptying bottle of rum, the tumbling half-castes. I pictured the tropics as one place, in the same way that politically one talks of America and Germany as though one were speaking of a single person. I thought of the natives as white people with brown faces. The reality was completely different.
Certain aspects of that reality it is impossible to convey. Climate, which is a series of physical sensations, can scarcely be made real to anyone who is virgin to those sensations. You cannot explain what snow is to a Marquesan. Nor can you picture equatorial heat in terms of English heat. A heat which is just as trying, but of a different texture. Nor can the qualities of landscape be conveyed with any exactness. You can do little more than evoke in the reader's mind a conventional image of tropic scenery. No one, for instance,who has not been both to Malaya and Polynesia could appreciate the skill with which Somerset Maugham has differentiated their separate landscapes. Much there is that cannot be conveyed. But the disparity between what one expected and what one finds largely lies in the fact that the reality would have surprised one less if one had not expected anything at all.
Novels are a bad guide. Or rather, the novelist who has written of the tropics has been misread. Perhaps because he has dabbled in sociology so much, the novelist would appear to be regarded nowadays as the producer of unofficial blue-books. “This isn't a true picture,” people will say. “How many people lead that kind of life? To how many people does that kind of experience come?” The novelist is adjured at the same time to tell stories and to portray the ordinary everyday life of ordinary people. If he describes a married woman in Penang arranging an illicit week in Singapore, he will be met with the criticism, “That's not true of Penang. How many women have done that, d'you think?” Which is sociological but not literary criticism. He is expected to draw studies of society from which principles may be deduced. He is expected not only to entertain, but to fulfil a function. It is by this standard that the majority of novels seem to be reviewed. You might as well say to Edgar Wallace, “What percentage of people do you think are crooks?” It does not matter in the least whether any woman from Penang has or has not gone to Singapore to meet a lover; all that the novelist has to do is to make the reader believe that the particular woman he is describing in the particular story did. You cannot make a story out of the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Stories are made out of exceptional people in ordinary circumstances, or ordinary people in exceptional circumstances. The background of ordinary life must be accurate; that is the only restriction that is laid upon the novelist. Because, however, the idea of the tropics is so strange to the Western mind, the exceptional character and circumstances that the novelist has described are accepted as being general.
In one of his best stories,The Out station,Somerset Maughamhas portrayed a district officer in Borneo leading, a week's journey from the nearest town, the same life that he would have lived in his club in Pall Mall. Every evening he wore a stiff white shirt, and patent leather shoes. It is true. Everything that can be put across is true. You know that that particular man in that situation would behave in that way. He is, however, exceptional. I have not yet met a man who wore evening clothes in the tropics in the bush. In the towns one wears evening clothes as one would in London, a white coat taking the place of the dinner jacket. On the plantations one wears what is most comfortable. Usually one wears the native dress: a sarong, or Chinese trousers. The stiff white shirt character is as rare as the “gone native” character. For him, too, I have never met. I have heard stories of men recognising in native kampongs among troupes of itinerant musicians the features of men they were at school with. But such stories have always reminded me of those anecdotes with whose example at school one's housemaster used to exhort one to good behaviour. Anecdotes of the shabby, drink-sodden creature coming to beg for half-a-crown “In the whole of his lying story the one thing I could verify was the fact that once he had been captain of this school.” In the tropics, as elsewhere, people have gone to pieces. But the man who would go to pieces in the tropics would go to pieces anywhere. And in the popular imagination the “gone native” myth has become identified with that very different, very real problem of the tropicsâthe white man and the brown woman.
How considerable a problem it is only those, I think, who have lived in the tropics can appreciate. The situation amounts to this: that a man during his first ten years in the tropics can scarcely afford to marry, and that for the unmarried man there is no practical alternative between chastity and the brown woman. The white man outnumbers the white woman by fifteen to one. The white women that are there, are, for the most part, the wives of residents. There are no unattached or unchaperoned young women. Occasionallythere are scandals. But if only for lack of opportunities they are rare. Privacy is difficult in a community not only where everyone knows everybody, and what everyone is doing at any given moment, but in which there are neither locked doors nor doors to lock, where every verandah is open to casual scrutiny. There is no semi-underworld. Occasionally the town will be visited by a troupe of singers. Occasionally a French saleswoman will arrive with Paris fashions. But that is all; for the most part the white life of a tropical town is consequently extremely moral.
In French colonies the situation presents no difficulties. The French have little colour feeling. Their empire is a black one. They have, moreover, the mistress system. They expect a young man to have hispetite amie,till the time for a prudent marriage comes. The British Empire, however, is white. And its young men are officially expected to remain chaste until they marry. Whatever is done by the Englishman has to be done secretly. And it is idle to pretend that vice in the East is anything but a very squalid business. Orientals, even when they love, are matter-of-fact. Over vice they throw no glamour. It would be impossible to throw any over the whispered message to a head boy on a lonely evening, the impatient pacing of a dark verandah; the silent tread of a half-seen dusky figure; the attempt to create a companionable atmosphere with a gramophone and cakes andstengahs; the hurrying back before dawn to the waiting rickshaw. That ordinarily is what it is. Sometimes the experiment of a second establishment is made, and a man is told, jocularly, that he speaks Malay too well, but it is furtive and unsatisfactory. It is impossible to visit the establishment very often. It is expensive. The white man suspects with good reason that he is being deceived by all his servants. As often as not the experiment is abandoned. There is no sense of liberty, no sense of companionship.
“The trouble is,” a young business man in Penang said to me, “that there's no place where you can get friendly with the girls. One would thank heaven here for the kind of night club like the â67 that in London one wouldn't put one'snose inside.” To the young bachelor that side of life cannot be anything but profoundly unsatisfying. Any averagely attractive white girl arriving in the tropics will be deluged with proposals of marriage.
In the plantations and in towns that are not British possessions the situation is slightly different. In Bangkok, for example, it would be possible for a white man to have a Siamese girl living in his bungalow, and on the plantations there is fairly often a Malay girl who disappears discreetly when visitors arrive. There the relationship has a certain dignity. There is faithfulness on both sides. Custom creates affection. But in neither case is there any approach to the “gone native” picture. In neither case has the white man done anything that involves loss of caste. He observes the customs of the country. To the average Westerner, of course, the idea of a white person living with a brown is intensely revolting. But the average Westerner thinks of the coloured races in terms of negroes.
I was discussing Robert Keable's novel,Numerous Treasure,with a woman who had lived a great deal of her life in the Antilles.
“It's good enough,” she said. “But when you think of what it amounts to really: a white man living with the kind of girl you see about the villages â¦”
“But that's not the type of girl at all,” I said, “that Keable's writing about. He's not writing about niggers. He's writing about Polynesians.”
“I suppose they are a bit different, really,” she admitted.
The Eskimo and the Hindoo are not more different. The Laos, the Malays, the Polynesians are proud, free-born people with a culture and traditions. They are completely separate from one another. But they have in common a heritage of personal dignity. They cannot be spoken of as the South African negro or the Australian aborigines.
All the same, I believe it is extremely rare for there to exist a profound relationship between a white man and a brown woman. The Polynesian, sweet-natured and tender though she is, is in too simple a state of development to attach permanentlyto herself a modern Westerner. While though the Malays and Siamese have an old and complicated culture, it is invariably with Malays and Siamese of the coolie class that the white man allies himself and under conditions which preclude romance. These relationships, into whatever they may develop, begin as a business transaction with the parents of the girl. There is no process of selection. It is arranged through the head boy. You might just as hopefully expect a profound experience to come from the answering of an advertisement inLe Sourire.
In most novels of the East, written by men who know the East, no attempt is made to disguise this fact. “The exceptional circumstance “that is introduced to make the story interesting is spontaneous feeling on the girl's part. Usually it is the story, as inSpears of DeliveranceandSepia,of a man who resists the ordinary situation to yield ultimately to a girl's wooing. These novels do not attempt to pretend that this situation is anything but exceptional. Novels are written out of dreams. It is in this way that the white man in the East dreams of things happening. They rarely do. Ninety-nine times in a hundred there is the discussion with a head boy, the bargaining with a parent. There is no glamour. There is no selection.
“It's a bit difficult at first,” I was told. “You've nothing to talk to her about except the price of paddy. After a while, you come to have things in common. You get pretty fond of her.”
It was a teak man in North Siam who said that to me.
“We can't take them up into the jungle with us,” he went on. “We're there for ten months of the year. Perhaps that's why we're so faithful to them. They don't have a chance of getting on our nerves.”
It is very much in that spirit that the majority of white men in the Far East regard these establishments. In Europe such relationships are exercising at the moment a powerful appeal on the popular imagination. The number of novels dealing with the subject is a proof of that. It: is an expression, that interest, of the desire to get a thing both ways. The Europeanimagines that in such a situation he will know the excitement of illicit love and the comforts of domesticity. But it is not like that. He is free. He has domesticity. But love he has not got. I have yet to meet the man who will say that he has really loved a coloured woman. In the work of no writer except Kiplingâand women are a side-show in Kipling's mental make-up; in many of his greatest stories women do not appear at allâis there any attempt to pretend that love as the moderns know it can exist under such conditions. Only twice does Somerset Maugham make a relationship with a coloured woman binding upon a white. And in each case he chose a Chinese woman. Love, as we understand it, is foreign to these people. “Son dÃ©sir tout sensuel”wrote Maupassantâhe was speaking of the Arabsâ“n'est point de ceux qui dans nos pays a Ã nous montraient aux Ã©toiles par des nuits pareilles. Sur cette terre amollissante et tiÃ¨de, si captivante que la lÃ©gende des Lotophages y est nÃ© dans l'Ã®le de Djerba, l'air est plus savoureux que partout, le soleil plus chaud, le jour plus clair. Mais le cÅur ne sait pas aimer, les femmes belles et ardentes sont ignorantes de nos tendresses. Leurs Ã¢mes simples restent Ã©trangÃ¨res aux Ã©motions sentimentales et leurs baisers, dit-on, n'enfantent point le rÃªve.”
Tahiti has been called the country of love, but Western love does not exist there. The Tahitians set no store by the things we value highest. “I suppose,” I once heard it asked, “that the Tahitians make love as readily as a modern girl will kiss?” But the answer is, “Much more readily.” The kiss is to the Tahitian a proof of affection. She will kiss no one of whom she is not fairly fond. Love-making she regards as a kind of dance. An adequate partner is all she needs. She regards that partner as the English girl regards a dancing partner. You do not kiss every man you dance with. The Tahitian who is ready to make love with a complete stranger might be offended if that stranger spoke of love to her. To an American, who was leaving for San Francisco for a couple of months, his Tahitian mistress said on their last evening, “Whatever you do, don't kiss any other girl.”
Tahiti is love's land. Love there is freely given. There are no discussions with head boys; no bargaining withparents; there are no responsibilities. No girl will be reluctant to have children in a country where children are well loved, where life is easy and life is happy. For the believer in free love Tahiti will seem the realisation of all his dreams. And I am not sure that Tahiti's lesson to the white man is not the discovery that there is no such thing as free love; that where love is free there is no love; that he neither loves nor is loved who has no bonds laid on him; that it is not the person who gives to you, but the person to whom you give who matters; that to the person to whom you have given something of yourself you are bound permanently, since you must return to that person if you would be complete; which is a thing that the person who has divided himself between many loves can never be. The Don Juans declare that they are searching for the ideal mate. They are not. They are searching for themselves; they are unsatisfied because they are incomplete. It is not vaingloriousness but the desire that her whole life and being shall be in the hands of a new lover that drives woman to those confessions that cost her in the end that new lover's faith in her.
Tahiti is love's land. It warms and softens; it lays the heart bare in readiness to love. But I have not met a single white man who has found love there with a Tahitian. “Leurs baisers n'enfantent point le rÃªve.”
Between brown and white there can be only a brief and superficial harmony. Such is the universal experience and the universal testimony of those in a position to judge accurately. Between brown and white there can be no relation interesting in itself. The interest lies in the situations that such relationships create. There are the half-caste children that have to be educated; there is the problem of the white wife who may come to a district in which her husband, as a bachelor, has had a coloured mistress; there is the wrench of leaving the brown woman when it is all over. Those situations are interesting. But the actual relationship I do not believe has ever gone very deep. And the greatest surprise to the traveller in the tropics will be to find how very little store is placed upon that side of life. In Siam, particularly, I noted this.VSiam
My visit to Siam was an unprepared adventure. They talk of the unhurrying East. And that, of course, it is. In a climate where a two-minute stroll reduces you to a state of damp prostration, life must move slowly if it is to be endured. But that is not to say that it is unadventurous. On the contrary, the very fact that it is unhurrying increases its potentiality for surprise. As for example:
It was in Penang, at the hour of ginsling, which is not the Malayan equivalent for cocktail time, but the morning break at the hour when people begin to weary of their offices. Between a quarter and half-past eleven there is a drifting towards those rival Harrod's, Pritchard's, and John Little's for twenty minutes of restoring gossip. It was in Pritchard's at the hour of the ginsling. And we were discussing, some four or five of us, Reginald Campbell'sUneasy Virtue,a novel that had its setting half in Penang and half in the teak jungles of North Siam. “I wonder,” I said, “how far it really is like that?” Adding in the idle way one does, “It would be rather fun to go and see.”
It was the kind of remark that in England would have been countered with a vague, “Ah, yes.” Or a discussion preferred, ironically, on the limitations and brevity of life. But in the East, whence half the fairy stories of the world have come, where magic carpets and bottled genii are no more than exaggerations of a way of living, there is the danger always of being taken at your word. “Then why,” said one of the party, “don't you go there?”
In a moment I had embarked on such a series of excuses as the cautious and calculating habits of Western life forge for us. But it was too late. The words of the spell were uttered.The genie was wreathing into smoke out of the bottle's neck. The edges of the carpet had begun to lift. “That should be quite simple,” my friend was saying. “Let me see, now. There's a man I know, a forest officer, who's going to make a jungle tour next week. He's starting for the north on Sunday. It's Wednesday now. If you left here on Friday morning you'ld be in Bangkok before dark on Saturday; that just fits. We'll wire and see if he can take you.” Before I had realised what was happening a telegraph form had been requisitioned and the genie had begun his work.
That is the way things happen in the East. In Europe we make plans months ahead and we adhere to them. In the heat of summer we book our rooms in Switzerland for winter sports. Every seat on the Blue Train is sold while the croisette is a succession of shuttered windows. Like the billiard player, we think three strokes ahead. In January we make our plans for June. Life moves so quickly that we should be submerged otherwise. But in the countries that are south of Aden no man bothers overmuch about what he will be doing a fortnight hence. Plans mature swiftly in that country of easy growth. Suggestions are made casually. “Wouldn't it be rather fun?” says someone. And you agree eagerly. Nor, on the next morning, do you write one of those notes so eminently practical with their justifying quotation from Mrs. Browning to the effect that “colours seen by candlelight do not look the same by day,” to explain how, on thinking it over in cool blood, you really feel â¦
A jungle trip is not a thing that can be undertaken lightly. It requires very careful adjustments of commissariat. You have to carry your larder with you. It is not pleasant to find yourself without provisions a hundred miles from any road that can be described as “fordable.” But the days pass so slowly that the ordering of six elephants instead of four and thirty-five coolies instead of twenty is an unalarming enterprise. There is always time to remedy mistakes. Things wait for you to-catch them up.
Eighty-six hours later I was in Bangkok.
Bangkok is a surprising city.
It is advertised as the Venice of the East. It photographs exquisitely. There are its proud avenues; the stately proportion of the throne hall; the strangely shaped and strangely coloured temples; its dark, mysterious canals. But the prevailing impression that it leaves on you is of dust and heat and squalor. The temples and the palaces are far apart. They are divided from one another by hot white roads and sequences of ugly buildings. The avenues are lined by insignificant and unsightly cabins. The city was planned by an earlier monarch who did not realise that Siam was without enough rich people to adorn fittingly those avenues with spacious bungalows. And as you drive past shack after wooden shack you wonder whether the temple and avenues and palaces are anything more than a faÃ§ade, imposing and distorting, before the real Siam that has expressed itself in the wooden and tin huts that crowd the canal and streets, and in the sluggish barges that float down its sluggish waterways. Siam is trying to Westernize itself. And, paradoxically, it is at the same time plying the slogan of “Siam for the Siamese.” The newrÃ©gimeis removing all the Europeans that it can from official positions, and those it is forced to retain are treated so cavalierly that many of them have presented their resignations. But the real Siam, the wealth and spirit of Siam, is apart from and indifferent to those changes. You suspect this while you are still in Bangkok. You are convinced of it within an hour of your leaving: as the train rattles through a landscape that has been, and for its geographical position must remain, exclusively agricultural.
Chiengmai, the northern capital, is twenty-seven hours of railroad north of Bangkok. In the old days, when there was no railway, you had to go by water. It was a five weeks' journey. The construction of the railway has brought vast differences into the life of those northern states, so separate from the southern statesâthey are more in touch with Burmathan Siamâthat they speak different languages and employ in places a different currency. But even so Chiengmai is a very distant city. It is the timber trade that brings the white man to Siam, and Chiengmai is the administrative centre of the two chief companies, the Borneo and the Bombay Burma. There are not, I fancy, more than thirty white people in the station. There is the bank manager and the English consul; there are the forest manager, and an occasional assistant who has come in from the jungle for a rest; there is an American mission which is responsible for schools and hospitals and a big sanatorium for lepers. The white life of Chiengmai centres round the Gymkhana Club. It is a large field set a little way out of town which serves as polo ground and golf course and tennis court. By five o'clock, when the heat of the day has lessened, most of the white community is there, scattered about the field. There is seventy-five minutes of strenuous exercise. Then when the light fails there is a gathering round a large table on which have been set out drinks, glasses and a little lamp. There are rarely more and rarely less than a dozen people there. It is peaceful. In the swift-fallen dusk the large field, with its wide-branched trees rising from a hedge, looks heartbreakingly like an English meadow. Mosquitoes are buzzing round the table. The women have slipped their legs into sarongs, sewn up at one end in the shape of bags. The talk is subdued and intimate. It is the hour that makes amends for the heat and dust of morning and afternoon. But it is not easy to convey the essence of those evenings. “What,” I can hear the protest of the average townsman, “you call this the best hour of the day; sitting round a table talking to people you've seen every evening of the week for as many years as you may happen to have been there? And the only variety, you say, is when one of the assistants, a fellow about whom you know all that there is to know, comes in for a few days from the jungle, or one of the men from Bangkok, about whom you know everything that there is to know, comes up for a jungle trip.