Tahiti - Departure From San Francisco
( Originally Published 1921 )
Departure from San Francisco-Nature man left behind—Fellow-passengers on the Noa-Noa—Tragedy of the Chinese pundit—Strange stories of the South Seas—The Tahitian Hula.
THE warning gong had sent all but crew and passengers ashore, though our ship did not leave the dock. Her great bulk still lay along the piling, though the gangway was withdrawn. The small groups on the pier waited tensely for the last words with those departing. These passengers were inwardly bored with the prolonged farewells, and wanted to be free to observe their fellow-voyagers and the movement of the ship. They conversed in shouts with those ashore, but most of the meanings were lost in the noise of the shuffling of baggage and freight, the whistling of ferries, and the usual turmoil of the San Francisco waterfront. I was glad that none had come to see me off, for I was curious about my unknown companions upon the long traverse to the South Seas, and I had wilfully put behind me all that America and Europe held to adventure in the vasts of ocean below the equator.
But the whistle I awaited to sound our leaving was silent. Officers of the ship rushed about as if bent on relieving her of some pressing danger, and I caught fragments of orders and replies which indicated that until a search was completed she could not stir on her journey. Then I heard cries of anger and protest, and caught a glimpse of a man whose appearance provoked confusing emotions of astonishment, admiration, and laughter. Ile was dressed in a Roman toga of rough monk's-cloth, and had on sandals. He was being hustled bodily over the restored gangway, and was resisting valiantly the second officer, purser, and steward, who were hardly able to move him, so powerfully was he made. One of his sandals suddenly fell into the bay. He had seized hold of the rail of the gangway, and the leather sandal dropped into the water with a slight splash. His grasp of the rail being broken, he was gradually being pushed, limping, to the dock. His one bare foot and his half-exposed and shapely body caused a gale of laughter from the docks and the wharf.
The gangway was quickly withdrawn, and our ship began to move from the shore. The ejected one stood watching us with sorrow shadowing his large eyes. He was of middle size, with the form of a David of Michelangelo, though lithe, and he wore no hat, but had a long, brown beard, which, with his brown hair, parted in the middle and falling over his shoulders, and his archaic garb, gave me a singular shock. It was as if a boyhood vision, or something seen in a painting, was made real. His eyes were the deepest blue, limpid and appealing, and I felt like shouting out that if it was a matter of money, I would aid the man in the toga.
"Christ!" yelled the frantic dock superintendent. "Get that line cast off and let her go ! Are you ceemenited to that hooker?"
Instantly before me came Munkacsy's picture of the Master before Pilate, evoked by the profanity of the wharf boss, but explaining the vision of a moment ago. The Noa-Noa emitted a cry from her iron throat. The engines started, and the distance between our deck and the pier grew as our bow swung toward the Golden Gate. The strange man who had been put ashore, with his one sandal in his hand, and holding his torn toga about him, hastened to the nearest stringer of the wharf and waved good-by to us. It was as if a prophet, or even Saul of Tarsus, blessed us in our quest. He stood on a tall group of piles, and called out something indistinguishable.
The passengers hurried below, to return in coats and caps to meet the wind that blows from China, and the second officer and the surgeon came by, talking animatedly.
"Oh, yus," said the seaman, chuckling, " 'e wuz 'auled out finally. The beggar 'ad 'id 'imself good and proper this time. 'E wuz in the linen-closet, and 'ad disguised 'imself as a bundle o' bloomin' barth-towels. 'E wuz a reg'lar grand Turk, 'e wuz. Blow me, if you 'd 'a' knowed 'im from a bale of 'em, 'e wuz so wrapped up in 'em. 'E almost 'ad us 'ull down this time. The blighter made a bit of a row, and said as 'ow he just couldn't 'elp stowin' aw'y every boat for T'iti.
"He 's a Bally nut," said the surgeon. "I say, though, he did take me back to Sunday school."
I recalled a man who walked the streets of San Francisco carrying a small sign in his upraised hand, "Christ has come!" He looked neither to the right nor the left, but bore his curious announcement among the crowds downtown, which smiled jestingly at him, or looked frightened at the message. If many had believed him, the panic would have been illimitable. He was dressed in a brown cassock, and looked like the blue-eyed man who had been refused passage to my destination. Probably, that American in the toga and sandals, exiled from the island he loved so well, had a message for the Tahitians or others of the Polynesian tribes of the South Seas, Essenism, maybe, or something to do with virginal beards and long hair, or sandals and the simple life. I wished he were with us.
We were in the Golden Gate now, that magnificent opening in the California shores, riven in the eternal conflict of land and water, and the rending of which made the bay of San Francisco the mightiest harbor of America. Before our bows lay the immense expanse of the mysterious Pacific.
The second officer was directing sailors who were snugging down the decks.
"What did the queer fellow want to go to Tahiti for?" I asked him.
He regarded me a moment in the stolid way of seamen.
"The blighter likes to live on bananas and breadfruit and that kind of truck," he replied. "The French won't let 'im st'y there. 'E 's too bloomin' nyked. 'E 's a nyture man. They chysed 'im out, and every steamer 'e tries to stow 'imself aw'y. 'E 's a bleedin' trial to these ships."
That was puzzling. Did not these natives of Tahiti themselves wear little clothing? Who were they to object to a white man doffing the superfluities of dress in a climate where breadfruit and bananas grow? Or the French, the governors of Tahiti? Were they, in that isle so distant from Paris, their capital, practising a puritanism unknown at home? Was nature so fearful? The figure of the barefooted man often arose as I watched the Farallones disappear, the last of land we would see until we arrived at Tahiti, nearly two weeks later.
The days fell away from the calendar; they obliterated themselves as quietly as our ship's wake to the north, as we planed over the smooth waters toward the equator. Gradually the passengers took on character, and out of the first welter of contacts came those definite impressions which are almost always right and which, though we modify them or reverse them by acquaintance, we return to finally.
There was a Chinese, the strangest figure of an Asiatic, with a thin mustache, and wearing always a black frock-coat and trousers, elastic gaiters, and a stiff, black hat. His face was long and oval and the color of old ivory. He had tried to gain admission to Australia and New Zealand, and then the United States, and had been excluded under some harsh laws. He was plainly a scholar, but had brought with him from China a store of curios, probably to enable him to earn money in the land of the white. Australia had refused him; he had been shut out of San Francisco, and the very steamship that brought him was compelled to take him away. He had failed to bring a necessary certificate, or something of the sort, and the inexorable laws of three Christian countries had sent him wandering, so that it was inevitable he must return to China by the route he had come. He was the most mournful of sights, sitting most of the day in a retired spot, brooding, apparently over his fate. He never smiled, though I who have been much in China, tried to stir him from his sadness by exclamations and gestures. His race has a very keen sense of humor. They see a thousand funny things about them, and laugh inwardly; but they never see anything amusing in themselves. The individual man conceives himself a dignified figure in a world of burlesque.
This man's face was rid of any self-pity. I think he was stunned by the horror of the thing, that he, a man of Chinese letters, who had departed from the centuried custom of his pundit caste of remaining in their own country, who had left his family or clan to increase his store of lesser knowledge, should be denied the door by these inferior nations of the West. He might have re-called Chien Lung, a Manchu emperor, who, when apologized to in writing by a Dutch governor of Batavia who had murdered almost all the Chinese there, replied that China had no interest in wretches who had left their native land. A thousand years ago the Chinese put the soldier lowest in the scale and the scholar highest, with the man of business as of no importance. And yet these commercial peoples barred their gates to him ! For a number of days he took his place in the shade of a davited boat, and now and again he read from a quaint book the Analects of Confucius.
We sailed on Wednesday, and on Sunday made the first tropic, nearly twenty-three and a half degrees above the line. No rough weather or unkindly wind had disturbed us from the hour we had left the "too nyked" man upon the wharf, and Sunday, when I went to take my bath before breakfast, I felt the soft fingers of the South caress my body, and looking out upon the purple ocean, whose expanse was barely dimpled by gleams of silver, I saw flying-fish skimming the crests of the swinging waves. The officers and stewards appeared in white; the passengers, too, put off their temperate-zone clothes, and the decks were gay with color. We all seemed to feel that we must be in consonance with the loving nature that had made the sky so blue and the sea so still.
The Chinese-he was Leung Kai Chu on the list did not change his melancholy black. The deck sports were organized, ship tennis, quoits, and golf, and the disks rattled about his feet; but though he often moved his chair to aid those seeking a lost quoit or ring, and bowed ceremoniously to those who begged his pardon for bothering him, he kept his position. I felt a somber sense of gathering tragedy. In his face was a growing detachment from everything about him; he hardly knew that we were there, that he ate and slept, and took his seat by the boat. All of us felt this, but with many it meant merely remarking that "the Chink is getting off his head," and a wish that he would not obtrude his grief when we were filled with the joy of sunny skies and a merry company.
The tragedy came sooner than expected by me. I had cast a thought to my understanding that the philosophy of Confucius did not contemplate self-destruction, and had been divided between relief and wonder that it was so.
It was dusk of Monday. The sun had sunk behind the glowing rim of the western horizon, and the air was suffused with a trembling rose color, when Leung Kai Chu tapped at my cabin-door, which gave on the boat-deck. I opened it, and he bowed, and handed me an image. It was of porcelain, precious, and I was at a loss to know whether he had felt the need of a little money and had brought it to sell, or had been impelled to give it to me because of my feeble efforts to cheer him. I made a gesture which might have meant payment, but he raised his hand deprecatingly, and for the first time I saw him smile, and I was afraid. He bowed, and in the mandarin language invoked good for-tune upon me. He had the aspect of one beyond good and evil, who had settled life's problem. When he left me I stood wondering, holding in my hands the majestic god seated upon the tiger, the symbol of the conquest of the flesh.
I heard a shout, and dropping the image, I rushed aft. Leung Kai Chu had thrown himself over the rail just by the purser's office. A stewards had seen him fling himself into the white foam. I tore a gas-buoy from its rack and tossed it toward the screw, in which direction he must have been swept. A sailor ran to the bridge, the whistle blew, and the ship shook as the engines ceased revolving, and then reversed in stopping her. Orders were flung about fast. A man climbed to the lookout as the first officer began to put a boat into the water. The crew of it and the second officer were already at the oars and the tiller as the ropes slid in the blocks. The passengers came crowding from their cabins, where they were dressing for dinner, and there were many expressions of surprise and slight terror.
Death aboard ship is terrible in its imminence to all. The buoy, with its flaming torch, had drifted far to lee-ward, and the lookout could do no more than follow its fainting light as the dark of the tropics closed in. An hour the Noa-Noa lay gently heaving upon the mysterious waters in which the despairing pundit had sought Nirvana, until the boat returned with a report that it had picked up the buoy, but had seen no sign of the man. Doubtless he had been swept into the propellers, but if not quickly given release in their cyclopean strokes, he may have watched for a few minutes our vain attempt to negative his fate. If so, I imagine he smiled again, as when he gave me the god upon the tiger.
As they hoisted the boat to its davits, I found in the lantern light his ancient volume, the "Analects of Confucius," and claimed it for my own. It was the very boat he had been accustomed to sit under, and he must have laid down the ancient philosopher to procure the gift for me, his grim determination already made. I had caught a glimpse of him Sunday morning listening to the Christian services conducted by the captain in the social hall, and when I told the brooding captain that, he was struck by the idea that perhaps some word of his preachment might have come to Leung Kai Chu's mind in his agony in the waters, and that at the last moment he might have repented and been saved.
"One aspiration, and he might be washed as white as snow. `This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise,' " said the commander, who was known as the parson skip-per, dour, but ever on the watch for the first sign of repentance.
On the other hand, Hallman more nearly stated the general feeling:
"By God, he spoiled sport, that black ghost on deck. He was like a tupapau, a Polynesian demon."
Hallman was in his early forties, with twenty years of South-Seas trading, a tall, strong, well-featured, but hard-faced, European, with thin lips over nearly perfect teeth, and cold, small, pale-blue eyes. He talked little to men, but isolated young women whenever possible, and bent over them in attempted gay, but earnest, con-verse. He was one of those cold sensualists whose passion is as that of some animals, insistent, prowling, fierce, but impersonal. An English South-Sea trader aboard gave me an astonishing light upon him:
"Some dozen years ago," he said, "I made a visit of a few weeks to the Marquesas Islands. Hallman had kept a store there then for more than ten years, and had a good part of the business of buying and shipping copra and selling supplies to the natives and a few whites. He lived in a shack back of his little store, with his native woman and four or five half-naked children. They told me queer stories about his madness for women. They said he would go out of his house and into the jungle near the trails and would lie in wait. If a woman he coveted passed, he would seize her, and even if her husband or consort was ahead of her, in the custom of these people, he would grab her feet, and make her call out that she was delaying a minute, that her companion was to go along, and she would catch up in a minute. He had some funny power over those women. Anyhow, that 's the story they told me in those cannibal islands. And yet, you know, there 's something different in him, 'because he sent two of his sons to school, and afterward to a university in Europe. To make it queerer yet, one of them is here on this ship, in the second class, and would n't dare to speak to his father without being asked. Of course he 's a half-Marquesan—the son—and looks it. I know them all, and only yesterday I heard Hallman call his son on the main-deck, away from where any one could see him, and threaten him with `putting him back in the jungle, where he came from,' if he appeared again near the first-class space. I tell you, I 'd hate to be in his hands if I was in his way."
Fictionists who take the South Seas for their scenery too often paint their characters in one tone—black, brown, or yellow, or even white. Their bad men are super-villains, and yet there are no men all bad. I know there are no supermen at all, bad or good, but only that some men do super acts now and then; none has the grand gesture at all times. Napoleon had a disgraceful affliction at Waterloo, which rid him of strength, mental and physical ; the thief on the cross be-came wistful for an unknown delight.
Hallman had said to me in the smoking-room that he never drank alcohol or smoked tobacco, because "it took the edge off the game." Now, a poet might say that, or even a moralist, but he was neither.
That night I walked through the waist of the ship and ,on to the promenade-deck of the third-class passengers, where a huddle of stores, coiled ropes, and riffraff prevented these poor from taking any pleasurable exercise. I stood at the taffrail and peered down at the welter of white water, the foam of the buffets of the whirling screws, and then at the wide wake, which in imagination went on and on in a luminous path to the place we had departed from, to the dock where we had left the debarred lover of nature. The deep was lit with the play of phosphorescent animalcules whom our pas-sage awoke in their homes beneath the surface and sent questing with lights for the cause. A sheet of pale, green-gold brilliancy marked the route of the Noa-Noa on the brine, and perhaps far back the corpse of the celestial philosopher floated in, radiancy, with his face toward those skies, so brazen to his desires.
A Swiss with a letter of introduction to me presented it when seven days out. It was from the manager of a restaurant in San Francisco, and asked me to guide him in any way I could. The Swiss was middle-aged, and talked only of a raw diet. He was to go to the Marquesas to eat raw food. One would have thought a crude diet to be in itself an end in life. He spoke of it proudly and earnestly, as if cooking one's edibles were a crime or a vile thing. He told me for hours his dictums—no alcohol, no tobacco, no meat, no fish ; merely raw fruit, nuts, and vegetables. He was a convinced rebel against any fire for food, making known to any one who would listen that man had erred sadly, thousands of years ago, in bringing fire into his cave for cooking, and that the only cure for civilization's evils was in abolishing the kitchen. He would live in the Marquesas as he said the aborigines do. Alas! I did not tell him they ate only their fish raw.
Ben Fuller, the Australian theatrical manager, frowned on him. Fuller was as round as a barrel, and he also was certain of the remedies for a sick world.
"How you 're goin' a get any bloody fun with no roast beef, no mutton, no puddin', and let alone a drop of ale and a pipe?"
The Swiss smiled beatifically.
"You can get rid of all those desires," he said.
"My Gawd ! I don't want to get rid o' them, I don't. I 'm bringing up my kiddies right, and I 'm a proper family man, but I want my meat and my bread and my puddin'. The world needs proper entertainment; that 's what 'II cure the troubles."
The Swiss was also ardent in attention to the women aboard, and I wondered if there was a new school of self-denial. The old celibate monks eschewed women, but had Gargantuan appetites, which they satisfied with meat pasties, tubs of ale, and vats of wine.
There were two Tahitians aboard, both females. One was an oldish 'woman, ugly and waspish. She counted her beads and spoke to me in French of the consolations of the Catholic religion. She had been to America for an operation, but despaired of ever being well, and so was melancholy and devout. I talked to her about Tahiti, that island which the young Darwin wrote, "must forever remain classical to the voyager in the South Seas," and which, since I had read "Rarahu" as a boy, had fascinated me and drawn me to it. She warned me.
"Prenez-garde vows, monsieur!" she said. "There are evils there, but I am ashamed of my people."
The other was about twenty-two years old, slender, kohl-eyed, and black-tressed. She was dressed in the gayest colors of bourgeois fashion in San Francisco, with jade ear-rings and diamond ornaments. Her face was of a lemon-cream hue, with dark shadows under her long-lashed eyes. Her form was singularly svelt, curving, suggestive of the rounded stalk of a young cocoa palm, her bosom molded in a voluptuous reserve. Her father, a clergyman, had cornered the vanilla-bean market in Tahiti, and she was bringing an automobile and a phonograph to her home, a village in the middle of Tahiti.
One night when a Hawaiian hula was played on the phonograph, she danced alone for us. It was a graceful, insinuating step, with movements of the arms and hands, a rotating of the torso upon the hips, and with a tinge of the savage in it that excited the Swiss, the raw-food advocate. Hallman was also in the social hall, and, after waltzing with her several times, had persuaded her to dance the hula. He clapped his hands loudly and called out :
That is Tahitian for bravo, and I saw a look in Hall man's face that recalled the story by the Englishman of the jungle trail. He was always intent on his pursuit.
Was I hypercritical? There was Leung Kai Chu with the sharks, and the nature man left behind! The one had lost his dream of returning to Tahiti, in which the Chinese might freely have lived, and the other had thrown away life because he could not enter the America that the other wanted so madly to leave. The lack of a piece of paper had killed him. Was it that happiness was a delusion never to be realized? If the pundit had bribed the immigration authorities, as I had known many to do, he might now have been studying the strange religion and ethics which had caused the whites to steal so much of China, to force opium upon it at the cannon's mouth, to kill tens of thousands of yellow men, and to raise to dignities the soldiers and financiers whom he despised, as had Confucius and Buddha. And if that white of the sandals had kept his shirt on in Tahiti, he might be lying under his favorite palm and eating breadfruit and bananas.
People have come to be afraid to say or even to think they are happy for a bare hour. We fear that the very saying of it will rob us of happiness. We have incantations to ward off listening devils-knocking on wood, throwing salt over our left shoulders, and saying "God willing."
What was I to find in Tahiti? Certainly not what Loti had with Rarahu, for that was forty years ago, when the world was young at heart, and romance was a god who might be worshiped with uncensored tongue. But was not romance a spiritual emanation, a state of mind, and not people or scenes? I knew it was, for all over the earth I had pursued it, and found it in the wild flowers of the Sausalito hills in California more than among the gayeties of Paris, the gorges of the Yangtse-Kiang, or in the skull dance of the wild Dyak of Borneo.