Tahiti - Rare Scene At The Tiare Hotel
( Originally Published 1921 )
The Noa-Noa comes to port—Papeete en fete—Rare scene at the Tiare Hotel—The New Year celebrated—Excitement at the wharf—Battle of the Limes and Coal.
THE Noa-Noa came in after many days of suspense, during which rumors and reports of war grew into circumstantial statements of engagements at sea and battles on land. A mysterious vessel was said to have slipped in at night with despatches for the governor. All was sensation and canard, on dit and oui dire, and all was proved false when the liner came through the passage in the reef. Nothing had happened to disturb the peace of nations, but a dock strike in Auckland had tied up the ship. The relief of mind of the people of Papeete caused a wave of joy to pass over them. Business men and officials, tourists who expected to leave for America and the outside world on the Noa-Noa, overflowed with evidence of their delight. The consuls of the powers met at the Cercle Militaire the governor, and laughed hectically at the absurd balloon of tittle-tattle which had been pricked by the Noa-Noa's facts. There had been absolutely nothing to the rumors but the fears or the antipathies of nationals in Tahiti.
It was the holiday season, the New Year at hand, and, moreover, there was added cause for rejoicing in the safety of the Saint Michel, a French-owned inter-island steamship which had been missing six weeks. She had left one of the Paumotu atolls and failed to reach her next port, thirty miles away. Rumor had sent her to the bottom. She was a crank vessel, with a perpetual list, and a roll of twenty-five degrees in the quietest sea; the dread of all compelled by affairs to take passage on her.
"She 's sunk; rolled over too much, and turned turtle," was the verdict at the Cercle Bougainville. Her agents had sent the Cholita, a small power schooner, to go over the Saint Michel's course, and find trace of her, if possible. Imagine the excitement along the water-front when, almost coincident with the sighting of the Noa-Noa, the Saint Michel appeared, pulled by the Cholita. Familiar faces of passengers appeared on her deck as she made fast to the quay, holding cigarettes as if they had waked up after a night in their own beds. The Cholita had found the Saint Michel at the Marquesas Islands, whither she had drifted after losing her rudder on a rock. After a month lying inert at the Marquesas, the Cholita had taken hold and dragged the crippled Saint back to Papeete.
The joy and surprise of the families and friends of the passengers and the crew must have the vent usual here, and what with the Noa-Noa's crew of amateur sailors, firemen, and yachtsman, and six licensed captains, taking the places of the strikers, the town was filled with pleasure-seekers. A high mass of thanksgiving at the cathedral was followed by a day of explanations, anathemas upon the owners of the Saint Michel, and the striking labor-unions, and of music, dancing, and toasts.
New Year's eve, two picture shows, hulas, and the festivities of the wedding of Cowan, the prize-fighter, brought in a throng from the districts to add to the Papeete population and the voyagers.
The streets were a blaze of colored gowns and flower-crowned girls and women. The quays were lined with singing and playing country folk. Small boats and canoes were arriving every few minutes during the afternoon with natives who preferred the water route to the Broom Road. Cowan was a favorite boxer, and shortly to face the noted Christchurch Kid, of Christchurch, New Zealand, whose fist was described on the bill-boards as "a rock thrown by a mighty slinger." Cowan, 'a half-Polynesian, was beloved for his island blood, and was marrying into a Tahitian family of note and means. The nuptials at the church were preceded by a triumphal procession of the bride and groom in an auto-mobile, with a score of other cars following, the entire party gorgeously adorned with wreaths,—hei in Tahitian,—and the vehicles lavishly decorated with sugar-cane and bamboo tassels. The band of the cinema led the entourage, and, played a free choice of appropriate music, "Lohengrin" before the governor's palace, and "There '11 be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" as they passed Lovaina's. The company sang lustily, and toasts to the embracing couple were drunk generously from spouting champagne-bottles as the cortege circled the principal streets.
There was rare life at Lovaina's, for besides all the diners in ordinary and extraordinary in the salle-a-manger, Stevens, the London stockbroker, had a retired table set for the American, British, and German consuls and their wives. The highest two officials of France in his group, Messieurs, I'Inspecteurs des Colonies, were there, eating solemnly alone, as demanded by their exalted rank, and their mission of criticism. They glanced down n often at their broad bosoms to see that their many orders were ,on straight, to note the admiration of lesser officialdom, and to make eyes at the women. Their long and profuse black beards were hidden by their napkins, which all Frenchmen of parts hereabouts tuck in their collars, and draw up to their mouths, a precaution which, when omitted, -is seen to have been founded on an etiquette utilitarian and esthetic.
The company was complex. At a table opposite me sat the juge inferieur and the daughter of the Chinese cook at the Hotel Central, a smart, slender woman with burning eyes, and with them, in full uniform, were two French civil officials, who wore, as customary, clothes like soldiers. One unfamiliar with their regalia might mistake, as I did, a pharmacist for an admiral. Mary, the cook's half-Tahitian daughter, was in elaborate European dress, with a gilded barret of baroque pearls in her copious, ehon tresses, and with red kid shoes buckled in silver and blister pearls.
The son of Prince Hinoe, who would have been the King of Tahiti had the dynasty continued to reign, had a dozen chums at a table, oafs from seventeen to twenty, and with the fish course they began to chant. The captain of the Saint Michel was with Woronick, the pearl-buyer, who had made the fearful trip to the Marquesas with him. There was Heezonorweelee, as the natives call the Honorable Walter Williams, the most famous dentist within five thousand miles, and the most distinguished white man of Tahiti; Landers; Polonsky; David; McHenry; Schlyter, the Swedish tailor; Jones and Mrs. Jones, the husband, head of a book company in Los Angeles; a Barbary Coast singer and her man; a demirep of Chicago and her loved one; three Tahitian youths with wreaths; the post-office manager, and with him the surgeon of the hospital; a notary's clerk, the governor's private secretary; the administrateur of the Marquesas Islands, Margaret, Lurline and Mathilde, Lena, and Lucy, lovely part-Tahitian girls who clerked in stores; the Otoman, chauffeur for Polonsky; English tourists; Nance, the California capitalist; and others.
Curses upon Saint Michel, threats of damage suits for fright and delay, laughable stories of the mistakes of the volunteer crew of the Noa-Noa; discussions of the price of copra, mingled with the chants of the native feasters and ribald tales. The Tiare girls, all color and sparkle, exchanged quips with the male diners, patted their shoulders, and gigglingly fought when they tried to take them into their laps.
In the open porch, Lovaina, gaily adorned, her feet bare, but a wreath of ferns on her head, sped the dishes and the wine. She kept the desserts before her and cut portions to suit the quality of her liking for each patron.
"Taporo e taata au ahu," said Atupu.
"The lime and the tailor," that means, and identified Landers and Schlyter. Landers was the "lime" be-cause a former partner of his establishment exported limes, and Landers succeeded to his nickname. Landers and Schlyter were good customers, so they got larger slices of dried-apple pie.
Chappe-Hall, being bidden farewell on his leaving for Auckland, was apostrophizing Tahiti in verse, all the stanzas ending in "And the glory of her eyes over all." There were bumpers and more, and "Bottoms up," until a slat-like American. woman bounced off the veranda with her sixth course uneaten to complain to Lovaina that her hotel was no place for a Christian or a lady.
Lovaina almost wept with astonishment and grief, but kept the champagne moving toward the Chappe-Hall table as fast as it could be cooled, meanwhile assuring the scandalized guest that nothing undecorous ever happened in the Tiare Hotel, but that it were better it did than that young men should go to evil resorts for their outbursts.
"My place respectable," Lovaina said dignifiedly. "I don' 'low no monkey bizeness. Drinkin' wine custom of Tahiti. Make little fun, no harm. If they go that Cocoanut House, get in bad."
Lovaina told me all about it. She was quite hurt at the aspersions upon her home, and entered the dining-room in a breathing spell to sit at my table, a rather unusual honor I deeply felt. I pledged my love for her in Pol Roger, but she would have nothing but water.
"I no drink these times," she explained. "Maybe some day I do again. Make fat people too much bigger. That flat woman from 'Nited States, ain't she funny? I think missionary."
From the screened area in which the consuls dined with the broker one heard :
"Here 's to the king, God bless him!" "Hoch der Kaiser!" "Vine la Republique!" "The Stars and
Stripes!" as the glasses were emptied by the consuls and their wives and host.
Lovaina had taken up the rug in the parlor, and a graphophone ground out the music for dancing. Ragtime records brought out the Otoman, a San Franciscan, bald and coatless. He took the floor with Mathilde, a chic, petite, and graceful half-caste, and they danced the maxixe. David glided with Margaret, Landers led out Lucy, and soon the room was filled with whirling couples. A score looked on and sipped champagne, the serving girls trying to fill the orders and lose no moment from flirtation. On the camphor-wood chest four were seated in two's space.
When midnight tolled from the cathedral tower, there was an uncalled-for .speech from a venerable traveler who apparently was not sure of the date or the exact nature of the fete:
"Fellow-exiles and natives bujus Teetee. We are gathered together this Fourth of July—"
Cries of "Aita!" "Ce n'est-pas vrai!" "Shove in your high ! It 's New Year!"
"—to cel'brate the annivers'ry of the death of that great man—"
Yells of "Sit down!" "Olalala!" "Aita maitai!" and the venerable orator took his seat. He was once a governor of a territory under President Harrison, and now lived off his pension, shaky, sans teeth, sans hair, but never sans speech.
The Englishmen and Americans clattered glasses and said "Happy New Year!" and the Tahitians: "Ruperupe tabu iti! I teienei matahiti api!" "Hurrah for all of us! Good cheer for the New Year!"
Monsieur Lontane, second in command of the police, arrived just in time to drink the bonne annee. He executed a pas seal. He mimicked a great one of France.
He drank champagne from a bottle, a clear four inches between its neck and his, and not a drop spilled.
Lovaina sat on her bench in the porch and marked down the debits :
Fat face 3 Roederer
The electric lights went out. There was a dreadful flutter among the girls. Some one went to the piano and began to play, "Should Auld Acquaintance be For-got," and the Americans and English sang, the French humming the air. The wine flattened in the glasses and open bottles, but no one cared. They gathered in the garden, where the perfume of the tiare scented the night, and the stars were a million lamps sublime in the sky. Song followed song, English and French, and when the lazy current pulsated again, the ball was over.
We walked to the beach, Nance and I.
"It 's hell how this place gets hold of you," said Nance, who had shot pythons in Paraguay and had a yacht in Los Angeles harbor. "I dunno, it must be the cocoa-nuts or the breadfruit."
Walking back alone through a by-path, I saw the old folks sitting on their verandas and the younger at dalliance in the many groves. Voices of girls called me:
"Haere me net" "Come to us!" "Haere mai u nei ite po is u nei!"
The Himene tatou Arearea of our Moorea expedition came from many windows, the accordions sweet and low, and the subdued chant in sympathy with the mellow hour. "The soft lasceevious stars leered from these velvet skies."
Lovaina had gone to bed, but, with the lights on again, patrons of the prize-fight had dropped in. The Christ-church Kid had beaten Teaea, a native, the match being a preliminary clearing of the ground before the signal encounter with the bridegroom.
The glass doors of the Salle-a-manger were broken in a playful scuffle between the whiskered doctor of the hospital, and Afa, the majordomo of the Tiare. The medical man ordered five bottles of champagne, and, putting them in his immense pockets, returned to his table and opened them all at once. He had them spouting about him while their fizz lasted, and then drank most of their contents. He then threw all the crockery of his table to the roadway, and Afa wrestled him into a better state, during which process the doors were smashed. When the bombilation became too fearful, Lovaina called out from her bed:
"Make smaller noise! Nobody is asleep I"
At two in the morning the gendarmes advised the last revelers to retire, and the Tiare became quiet. But Atupu slept in a little alcove by the bar, and any one in her favor had but to enter her chamber and pull her shapely leg to be served in case of dire need.
The incidents of the departure of the Noa-Noa that day for San Francisco will live in the annals of Papeete. Its calamitous happenings are "in the archives." I have the word of the secretary-general of the Etablissments Francais de l'Oceanie for that, and in the saloons and coffee-houses they talked loudly of the "bataille entre les cochons Anglais et les heros les Franpais et les Tahitiens."
It was a battle that would have rejoiced the heart of Don Quixote, and that redoubtable knight had his prototype here in the van of it, the second in command of the police of Papeete, M. Lontane, the mimic of the Tiare celebration.
The Noa-Noa's amateur crew of wretched beachcombers, farm laborers, and impossible firemen, stokers, and stewards, a pitiable set, were about the waterfront all day, dirty, dressed in hot woolen clothes, bedraggled and as drunk as their money would allow. The ship was down to leave at three-thirty o'clock, but it was four when the last bag of copra was aboard. There were few passengers, and those who booked here were dismayed at the condition of the passageways, the cabins, and the decks. The crowd of "scabs," untrained white sailors, and coal passers was supplemented by Raratonga natives, lounging about the gangway and sitting on the rails. On the wharf hundreds of people had gathered as usual to see the liner off. Lovaina was there in a pink lace dress, seated in her carriage, with Vava at the horse's head. Prince Hinoe had gathered about him a group of pretty girls, to whom he was promising a feast in the country. All the tourists, the loafers, the merchants, and the schooner crews were there, too, and the iron-roofed shed in which it is forbidden to smoke was filled with them. The Noa-Noa blew and blew her whistle, but still she did not go. The lines to the wharf were loosened, the captain was on the bridge, the last farewells were being called and waved, but there was delay. Word was spread that some of the crew were missing, and as at the best the vessel was short-handed, it had to tarry.
At last came three of the missing men. They, too, had welcomed the New Year, and their gait was as at sea when the ship rises and falls on the huge waves. They wheeled in a barrow a mate whose mispoise made self-locomotion impossible. The trio danced on the wharf, sang a chantey about "whisky being the life of man," and declared they would stay all their lives in Tahiti; that the "bloody hooker could bleedin' well" go without them. They were ordered on board by M. Lontane, with two strapping Tahitian gendarmes at his back.
If there are any foreigners the average British roustabout hates it is French gendarmes, and the ruffians were of a mind to "beat them up." They raised their fists in attitudes of combat, and suddenly what had been a joyous row became a troublesome incident.
Sacre bleu! those scoundrels of English to menace the uniformed patriots of the French republic! The second in command drew a revolver, and pointing at the hairy breast of the leader of the Noa-Noans, shouted: "Au le vapeur! Diable! What, you whisky-filled pigs, you will resist the law?"
He took off his helmet and handed it to one of the native policemen while he unlimbered the revolver more firmly in the direction of the seamen. The sailor shrank back in bewilderment. Guns were unknown in shore squabbles.
"I 'll 'ave the British Gov'ment after ye," roared the leader. "I 'll write to the Sydney papers. Ye 've pulled a gun in me face."
Steadily and with some good nature the Tahitian officers pushed the trio toward the gangway and up it. Once aboard, .the gangway was hoisted, the pilot clambered up the side, and it seemed as if the liner was away. But no; the three recalcitrants jumped on the bulwarks, and joined by a dozen others, yelled defiance at the authorities. As the Noa-Noa gradually drew out these cries became more definite, and the honor of France and of all Frenchmen was assailed in the most ancient English Billingsgate. Gestures of frightful significance added to the insults, and these not producing retorts in kind from the second in command and the populace, a shower of limes began to fall upon them.
Sacks of potatoes, lettuce-heads, yams, and even pine-apples, deck cargo, were broken open by the infuriated crew to hurl at the police. The crowd on the wharf rushed for shelter behind posts and carriages, the horses pranced and snorted, and M. Lontane leaped to the fore. He advanced to the edge of the quay, and in desperate French, of which his adversaries understood not a word, threatened to have them dragged from their perches and sent to New Caledonia.
A well-aimed lime squashed on his cheek, and with a "Sapristi!" he fled behind a stack of boxes. The riot became general, the roustabouts heaving iron bars, pieces of wood, and anything they could find. No officer of the Noa-Noa said a word to stop them, evidently fearing a general strike of the crew, and when the missiles cut open the head of a native stevedore and fell even among the laughing girls, the courtesies began to be returned. Coal, iron nuts, stones, and other serious projectiles were thrown with a hearty good-will, and soon the crew and the passengers of the Noa-Noa were scuttling for safety.
The storm of French and Tahitian adjectives was now a cyclone, Tahitian girls, their gowns stained by the fruity and leguminous shot of the Australasians, seized lumps of coal or coral, and took the van of the shore legions. Atupu struck the leader of the Noa-Noa snipers in the nose with a rock, and her success brought a paean of praise from all of us.
The entente cordiale with Britain was sundered in a minute. The melee grew into a fierce battle, and only the increasing distance of the vessel from shore stopped the firing, the last shots falling into the lagoon.
The second in command had been reinforced by the first in command, and now, summoned by courier, appeared the secretary-general of the Etablissements Francaises de l'Oceanie, bearded and helmeted, white-faced and nervous, throwing his arms into the air and shrieking, "Qu' est-que ce que fa? Is this war? Are we human, or are these savages?"
Lovaina, in the rear of whose carriage I had taken refuge, exclaimed :
"They say Tahiti people is savage! Why this crazy people must be finished. Is this business go on?"
"Non, non!" replied the secretary-general, with patriotic anger, "'We French are long suffering, but c'est asset maintenant."
He spoke to the first in command, and an order was shouted to M. Wilms, the pilot, to leave the Noa-Noa. That official descended into his boat and returned to the quay, while the liner hovered a hundred yards away, the captain afraid to come nearer, fearful of leaving port without expert guidance, and more so that the crew might renew the combat.
The secretary-general conferred with the private secretary of the governor, the first and second in command, and several old residents. They would apply to the British consul for warrants for the arrest of the ruffianly marksmen, they would wrench them from the rails, and sentence them to long imprisonments.
So for an hour more the steamship puffed and exhausted her steam, while the high officials paced the wharf shaking their fists at the besotted stokers, who shook theirs back.
The stores, closing at five o'clock, sent their quota of clerks to swell the mob at the quay, and the "rubberneck wagon," alert to earn fares, took the news of the fray into the country, and hauled in scores of excited provincials, who had vague ideas that la guerre was on. The wedding party, only six motor-cars full on the second day, all in wreaths of tuberoses and wild-cherry rind, the bride still in her point-lace veil, and the groom and all the guests cheered with the champagne they had drunk, drove under the shed from the suburbs and honked their horns, to the horror of the secretary-general and the others.
The situation was now both disciplinary and diplomatic.
"C'est tres serieuvx," whispered the secretary to the governor's private secretary, a dapper little man whose flirting had made his wife a Niobe and alarmed the husbands and fathers of many French dames et files.
"Serious, monsieur?" said the private secretary, twisting his black wisp of a mustache, "it is more than serious now; it is no longer the French Establishments of Oceania. It is between Great Britain and France."
A peremptory order was given to drive every one off the quay, and though the crowd chaffed the police, the sweep of wharf was left free for the marchings and counter-marchings of the big men.
"What would be the result? 'Would the entire British population of the ship resist the taking away of any of the crew? Oh, if the paltry French administration at Paris had not removed the companies of soldiers who until recently had been the pride of Papeete! And crown of misfortune, the gun-boat, sole guardian of French honor in these seas, was in Australia for repairs. Eh bien, n'importe! Every Frenchman was a soldier. Did not Napoleon say that? Nom de pipe!"
Wilfrid Baillon, a cow-boy from British Columbia, was standing near me with his arms folded on his breast and a look of stern determination on his sunburned face.
"We must look sharp," he said to me. "We may all have to stand together, we whites, against these French frog-eaters."
The tension was extreme. The warrants had not come from the British consul, and there seemed no disposition on the Noa-Noa to save the face of la belle republique, for the blackened and blackguardly stokers still dangled their legs over the rail and made motions which caused the officials to shudder and the ladies to shut their eyes.
The agent of the vessel in Papeete, an American, appeared. He talked long and earnestly with the secretary-general and the first and second, and to lend even a darker color to the scene, the procureur-general, the Martinique black, tall, protuberant, mopping his bald head, took the center of the conclave. Noses were lowered and brought together, feet were stamped, hands were wiggled behind backs, and right along the American, the agent, talked and talked.
They demurred, they spat on the boards, they lifted their hands aloft—and then they ordered the pilot to return to the Noa-Noa, and that vessel, whistling long and relievedly, pointed her nose toward the opening in the reef.
Mon Dieu! the suspense was over. The people melted toward their homes and the restaurants, for it was nearly seven o'clock. I drifted into the knot about the officials.
"It is in the archives," said the secretary-general. "It will go down in history. That is enough."
The delightful M. Lontane, in khaki riding breeches, —he, as all police, ride bicycles—his khaki helmet tipped rakishly over his cigarette, blew a ringlet.
"C'est comme fa. We would not press our victory," he said gallantly. "We French are generous. We have hearts."
The secretary-general, the procureur general, the first in command and the private secretary, sighted the carriage of the governor, who had not appeared until the Noa-Noa was out of the lagoon, and they went to tell him of the great affair.
The agent of the line, grim and unsmiling, climbed to the wide veranda of the Cercle Bougainville, and ordered a Scotch and siphon.
"There she goes," he said to me, and pointed to the steamer streaking through the reef gate. "There she goes, and I 'm bloody well satisfied."
At tea the next afternoon the British consul cast a new light on the international incident. He was playing bridge with the governor and others when the demand for the warrants was brought.
"The blighters interrupted our rubber," said the consul, "and the governor was exceedingly put out. I told them the Noa-Noa could n't proceed without the stokers, and as it carries the French mail, they patched it up to arrest them when they return. We quite lost track of the game for a few minutes."
But the cruel war would not down. There was not a good feeling between the English and French in Tahiti. A slight opposition cropped out often in criticism ex-pressed to Americans or to Tahitians, or to each other's own people. New Zealand governs the Cook group, of which Raratonga is the principal island. Comparisons of sanitation, order, neatness, and businesslike management of these islands, with the happy-go-lucky administration of the Society, Paumotus, Marquesas, and Austral archipelagoes, owned by the French, were frequent by the English. The French shrugged their shoulders.
"The Tahitians are happy, and we send millions of francs to aid France," they said. "The English talk always of neatness and golf links and cricket-grounds. Eh Bien! There are other and better things. And as for drink, oh, la, la! Our sour wines could not fight one round of the English boxe with whisky and gin and that awful ale."
The French residents protested at the missiles of the crew and the laissez-faire of the Noa-Noa officers, and the British consul received a letter from the governor in which the affair of the riot was revived in an absurd manner.
One might understand M. Lontane, second in command of the police forces,—six men and himself, magnifying the row between the tipsy stokers and his battalions, but to have the governor, who was a first-rate hand at bridge, and even knew the difference between a straight and a flush, putting down black and white, sealed with the seal of the Republique Francaise, and signed with his own hand, that "France had been insulted by the actions of the savages of the Noa-Noa," was worthy only of the knight of La Mancha.
So thought the consul, but he was a diplomat, his adroitness gained not only in the consular ranks, but also in Persia as a secretary of legation, and in many a fever-stricken and robber-ridden port of the Near and Far East. He pinned upon his most obstreperous uniform the medal won by merit, straddled a dangling sword, helmeted his head, and with an interpreter, that the interview might lack nothing of formality, called upon the governor at his palace.
He told him that the letter of complaint had roused his wonderment, for, said his British Majesty's representative, "There can be no serious result, diplomatically or locally, of this Donnybrook Fair incident. In a hundred ports of the world where war-ships and merchant ships go, their crews for scores of years have fought with the police. Besides, I am informed that Monsieur Lontane put a revolver against the stomach of one of the stokers, and that provoked the nastiness. Until then it had been uncouth mirth causd by the vile liquor sold by the saloons licensed by the Government, and against the Papeete regulations that no more intoxicants shall be sold to a man already drunk. But when this British citizen, scum of Sydney or Glasgow as he might be, saw the deadly weapon, he felt aggrieved. This revolver practice is all too common on the part of Monsieur Lontane. Six such complaints I have had in as many months. As to that part of your letter that the crew of the Noa-Noa not be allowed to land here on its return to Papeete, I agree with you, but it will be for you to enforce this prohibition."
It was agreed that on the day the Noa-Noa arrived on her return trip, all gendarmes and available guard be summoned from the country to preserve order, and that, as asked in the letter, the consul demand that the captain of the steamship punish the rioters.
And all this being done through an interpreter, and the consul having unlimbered his falchion and removed his helmet, he and the governor had an absinthe frappe and made a date for a bridge game.
"Te tamai i te taporo i te arahu i te umaru," the natives termed the skirmish. "The conflict of the limes, the coal, and the potatoes." A new himene was improvised about it, and I heard the girls of the Maison des Coco-tiers chanting it as I went to Lovaina's to dinner.
It was something like this in English :
"Oh, the British men they drank all day And threw. the limes and iron.
The French in fear they ran away.
The brave Tahitians alone stood firm,"
And there were many more verses.