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SOUTH SEA MOONSHINE
BY CHARLES BERNARD NORDHOFF
THE late Mr. William Churchill remarked, in the opening chapter of one of his distinguished works on Polynesian philology: 'About the islands of the central tract of ocean, romance has cast its charm; its power remains even in these later days. Sensitive natures have counted the world well lost for the enjoyment of its delights; ignorant men have yielded to the same compulsion and have found a dingy pleasure in settling down as beach-combers. . . . The people have won those who came to seek them; they have been treated as gentlefolk.'
Even in the days of Spanish exploration, Europeans recognized the tranquil charm of these islands; and now after six years of war, economic crisis, and social upheaval - a great many people are finding relief from gloomy and alarming thoughts in dreaming of the South Seas. Late in the eighteenth century, fashionable France rhapsodized over the beauty of a life freed from restraint, in Bougainville's Nouvelle Cythère; one hundred and fifty years later, the sudden recognition of Gauguin's genius caused a ripple which has crossed two great oceans and is breaking gently, at last, on a score of lonely coral reefs.
Every mail-boat arriving at Tahiti nowadays brings its quota of an extraordinary pilgrimage-painters and literary men in search of atmosphere; scholars in search of folk-lore; weary men of affairs in search of forgetful
ness; refugees from the arid portion of North America in search of wassail; steerage passengers in search of a land where food and work are not akin. To watch them come ashore at the quay is at once ludicrous and pathetic-a study in the childishness of grown-up humanity. Some bristle with weapons to repel the attacks of cannibals; others, when their luggage is opened at the custom-house, display assortments of beads and mirrors for barter with the savages. One almost envies them, for the radiance of the first landfall has not yet faded from their eyes, still dazzled with a vision the pilgrims have traveled far to seek.
I have often speculated on the motives actuating these men and women most of them of a class neither adventurous nor imaginative. Why have they left home at all, and why have their wanderings led to a place so insignificant and remote? In some cases, of course, the motives are not complex. I remember a middle-aged Californian, who did not hesitate to be frank. We were sitting on the hotel verandah, wasting an afternoon in idle talk.
'Why did I come to Tahiti?' he said; 'that's simple- I wanted to live in a place where I could have a drink without breaking the law. I reckon I'm a good American, but I like to be let alone. The French are great fellows to mind their own business; I found that out during the war. Yes, I was there over age, but I got into the National
Guard at the start. When I got home, I took a look around and then made my partner a proposition to buy me out. We had a nice little business; my share of it, turned into bonds, brings in about three thousand a year. When the deal was fixed, I got a map and hunted up the nearest French colony-I reckoned it would be quieter there than in France. I guess I'll leave my bones on Tahiti. My house will be finished in another month; it's close to the water, with a big shady verandah where you can sit and look out across the lagoon to Moorea. I don't want any women, or servants, or newspapers, or plantations, or business of any kind—I just want to be let alone; but any man who does n't talk politics will be welcome to drop in for a drink.'
Here was one accounted for. A few moments later, on the same verandah, another man told his story in eight words, pregnant as they were brief. There was an Englishman with us a traveler, who was stopping over a steamer in the course of an eastward tour around the world. He had been in India, and was showing us his collection of photographs of that land. While the pictures were passed about, I noticed an elderly American, of morose and corpulent mien, sitting at some distance from the rest of the company and taking no part in the conversation, though he uttered from time to time a series of nasal sounds vaguely suggestive of French and correctly interpreted by the native girl to mean: 'One rumpunch.' In time we came to the inevitable picture of the Taj Mahal; and while we gazed at it, marveling anew, the tourist spoke of the vast expense of raising such a monument. When he had finished, the man who wanted to be let alone was the first to speak.
'Just think of that guy,' he remarked, 'spending ten million dollars to bury his wife!'
'I'd give more than that to bury mine!'
It was the orderer of rum-punches who spoke, addressing the company for the first and last time. He said it without a shadow of humor so earnestly, so convincingly, that several seconds elapsed before any of us smiled. He had placed himself. Curiosity regarding him was at an end; if he chose to spend the rest of his days in the South Seas, gossip would pass him by, to whisper of others less communicative
the ever-present rumored murderer or defaulting financier. For all we knew, the morose gentleman might have been quite capable of building a second Taj Mahal.
One quiet and pleasant Englishman, who might have passed for an elderly clerk, spending the savings of a lifetime on his first real holiday, gave the gossips of Papeete a shock when he appeared at the bank to draw money on a letter of credit for a million dollars. Another man came here not long ago, traveling to his former home in the States an old trader who has put in forty years in the Western islands, and carries with him two heavy cedar chests in which the tales of eye-witnesses vouch for the presence of four hundred thousand dollars in American gold.
By far the greater number of adventurers, unfortunately, reach the South Seas without worldly goods of any kind
- victims of a delusion, fostered by nearly everything printed about this part of the world, that in these blissful isles one need not work in order to enjoy the customary three square meals. There are said to be islands, far off and inaccessible, in the Paumotu group, where the good-natured brown man will not let a stray white starve; but, as
a rule, the islands of the Pacific are unhappy places in which to find one's self destitute. It is true that a rapid depopulation should make living easy for the survivors; but the land is closely held, and the surplus, which once supported far greater numbers, is now devoted to the articles of luxury for which a century of intercourse with Europeans has created a demand. Every steamer unloads one or more enthusiasts whose purses have been emptied to buy passage south, and whose heads are filled with dreams of slumberous ease in a palm-thatched hut, where the traditional dusky maidens, of surpassing amiability and charm, ply the fan or prepare savory repasts of the food that nature provides in superfluity. And the fact that such dreams are not entirely baseless makes them all the more deceptive.
Only last year, a boat's crew from a shipwrecked vessel managed to reach Rapa Iti, a lonely southern outlier of Polynesia, visited by a chance schooner at intervals of a year or two. The men of Rapa, brought up from infancy to the ways of the sea, are in demand as sailors, and the result is that on the island the females outnumber the males in a proportion said to be seven to one. When, after many months, a vessel arrived at Rapa to rescue the stranded mariners, the work of rescue had to be carried on almost violently; for the least popular member of the boat's crew was provided with half-a-dozen brown ladies, who hovered about anxiously, not even permitting their lord so simple a task as raising the food to his own lips. The parting was a melancholy one; the girls stood weeping on the beach, while the sailors protested that they had no desire whatsoever to leave the island- far from it, they asked nothing better than to be left undisturbed in the enjoyment of a life they found full of charm. But Rapa
Iti is one island out of many score, and he who seeks to eat of the lotus in that distant sea will be reminded of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Camel, and the Needle's Eye.
There is a Frenchman at present on Tahiti, a retired shoemaker with a comfortable balance at the bank,who has been trying for nearly a year to get to Rapa. He is a quaint and agreeable fellow, with a streak of eccentricity which renders interesting an otherwise commonplace man. Long ago, in the Norman village of his birth, a seafaring friend told him of the lonely island south of the Austral group; and since that day Rapa has been the object of his life to be dreamed of as he stitched and pegged through the monotonous day, or in the evening, while he sipped a chopine of cider at the inn. Last year he sold his property, closed his shop, bade his relatives farewell, and started on the voyage which was to take him half-way around the world. But schooners for Rapa are rare, and the French authorities, made wise by past experience, do not encourage white settlers to establish themselves on the more remote islands. As things go, the cobbling dreamer, with his tools and seeds and store of clothing, may end his days on Tahiti his quest unfulfilled to the last.
Unlike the majority of white strays, he would probably make a harmless and contented settler. He is practical, knows what he wants, and indulges in no absurd visions of becoming a savage; a generation among savages works little change in such a man.
The thought of him brings to mind another, almost at the opposite extreme of the human scale, whose experiment in solitude is already proving a success.
This one is an American of thirty
five cultivated, thoughtful, and wellborn; a graduate of a great university, and knowing intimately the people and capitals of many lands. When the war was over, he found himself out of touch with a life that seemed feverish and over-complex, and set out to seek a place where he might pass the remainder of his days in tranquillity. He had visited Tahiti before, and far out on the eastern extremity of the island his travels came to an end. There, close to the lagoon, in a thatched house, stocked with books and good furniture and porcelain, he may be found to-day, a cheerful and serene recluse. Possessed of enough to live in modest comfort, he seems to have found the environment best suited to his quality of mind. When he asked me to spend a few days with him, I went with some curiosity to observe how my friend's venture was working out.
I found him settled to a quiet routine, in a place beautiful enough to excite the envy of an emperor. The view from his verandah - a panorama of mountains, forest, river, and bright-blue seawould warrant a journey of a thousand leagues. During the year of his residence, he has learned to speak Tahitian with surprising fluency, and without any effort toward authority, has become a sort of village patriarch and counselor in native affairs. There is neither white doctor nor brown tahua nearer than fifty miles; perceiving this fact, my friend sent home for elementary medical books and a stock of simple remedies. Now he administers iodine and castor oil to such a multitude that he has been obliged to set aside certain hours for consultation.
His good-nature is rewarded at times. On the day of my arrival he performed -quite unintentionally-a cure which placed him in a class with the famous healers of the island. Early in the morning, a child led an old blind woman to
the door, asking treatment for a badly infected cut on her ankle. The cut was washed with soap and water, rinsed with alcohol, painted with iodine, and sealed with adhesive plaster. I arrived an hour or two later; and as we sat down to lunch, a group of men and women approached at a rapid gait and stopped before the house, talking excitedly among themselves.
The manner in which a caller approaches the house of his friend is worthy of remark, for it throws a curious side-light on Tahitian ideas of propriety. Since heathen days, the grounds surrounding the dwelling of every man of importance have been enclosed by a fence or hedge. The caller halts outside this barrier and waits, with an air of humility, until the cry of welcome is given by someone within.
'Haere mai,' called my host; and next moment the dining-room was full of people. They had come to tell him— all at once-of the wonderful results of his medicine on old Teura. Remedies given at daybreak had been known to cure before dark, but this one had done its work in a matter of four hours --effecting a cure without parallel in the memory of the village. The patient was eager to thank her benefactor in person, but her family thought it best, for the present, to keep her out of the sunlight. For five years she had been blind, and now-dimly, but more clearly every hour she could see!
The doctor took his cue with just the right degree of casual professional interest neither claiming nor disclaiming credit for the achievement. So much the better, if they chose to believe him capable of miracles; in future his simple admonishments would be heard with more respect. It was the moment to drive home a strong impression; he seldom gave rum to the natives, but now glasses were filled and we drank to the restored vision of Teura.
When they had gone and we had finished lunch, the conversation turned to native medicine. I told him of an experience of my own, when I was down with an attack of old malaria venir of Vera Cruz. (The Anopheles mosquito, by the way, which carries the germs of malaria, does not thrive in the islands of the eastern Pacific, though his cousin Stegomia trails ominous striped legs under one's nose at all hours of the day, and makes one shudder at the thought of a carrier of yellow fever arriving by chance in Polynesia.) At the height of my illness, actuated by curiosity more than anything else, I called in a Tahitian doctor of the half-baked modern school. Perhaps I do the old lady an injustice for my doctor was elderly and feminine; at any rate, I recovered, and can vouch for the potency of her raau, which may or may not have had a beneficial effect.
Ushered in reverently by an attendant, she squatted on the verandah beside where I lay, and regarded me for a time with shrewd black eyes, set in a face of wrinkled brown. Perhaps she was merely shy; perhaps she doubted the sincerity of a white man willing to pin his faith on native medicine. At last she seemed satisfied and asked me rapidly and rather competently, I thought a list of diagnostic questions. It did not take her long to decide on the needful febrifuge; within five minutes she had summoned three girls of the household and dispatched them in search of her primitive drugs. One was to gather a coarse grass found along the edge of the lagoon; another was ordered to grate the meat and express the cream of half-a-dozen cocoanuts; the third set out for the reef in a canoe, to search for a variety of sea-urchin called fetue. All this sounded ominous enough to me; I began to regret the curiosity which leads one into scrapes, but it was too late to think of retreat.
Before the tahua took her leave, she suggested the frequent drinking of an infusion of orange leaves, and informed me that the real cure could not begin for another day, as the brewing of my medicine required twenty-four hours.
I awoke next morning with the vague premonitory depression familiar to all of us-an overflow from the subconscious, independent of positive memory. What was it that made disagreeable the prospect of the coming day. - Ah, yes, the sea-urchins! Toward nine o'clock the doctor appeared. The cure began with a bath from head to heels in a dark tincture of the grass gathered the day before; and after the bath my sore bones were treated to an hour of massage. In this branch of their art, at least, I can affirm the competence of the native doctors. The bath and massage were calculated to pave the way for the final coup-de-grâce - almost as deadly as the poniard-thrust between the joints of a mediæval gorget. It came in the form of a half-pint tumbler, filled with a viscous whitish liquid. I do not know all its ingredients, or how they were compounded, but the boileddown power of strange substances was in it, and it tasted worse than it looked.
'Some people,' remarked my doctor, gazing admiringly at her handiwork in the glass held out to me, 'cannot take this medicine it is too strong. But it will cure your fever!'