Merchantmen on the Seven Seas
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
Summer Isles and Winter Seas
A WARM, light Pacific breeze stirs from its ocean nest and sets forth to meet the night.
The blushing sky deepens, fades and melts into dusk, star-sprinkled and filled with the indefinable charm of a South Sea night. Faint land noises drift over the still lagoon. Lights appear beyond the shadowed stretch of the Quai du Commerce and matches flare for a brief moment on the fruit-heaped decks of nearby island traders.
Our last night at Tahiti! Daybreak will see the “Blue Peter” whipped aloft, and our vessel running the gauntlet of the barrier reef.
The cargo is well stowed and all hatches dogged down. We have aboard, hides, hemp and skins from New Zealand and Australia, and eucalyptus oil from beautiful Tasmania— and this Pacific fairyland, Tahiti, has given us vanilla, copra, curios and mother-of-pearl. The acrid yet half-sweet smell of the copra permeates every corner of the ship, and copra bugs, little black pests, are everywhere. The Old Man damned them to-day for drowning in his porridge. Braw Scot!—who can down porridge in Latitude 26’ South!
The Chief is stumping along the deck with the steward in his wake, lugging an armful of fruit—pineapples, mangoes, plantains, papehaari and custard apples. He climbs the ladder and settles in a deck-chair with a contented grunt. The steward retires. We munch, smoke and are silent.
Tahiti! What a wealth of tender memories you have poured into our hearts, from that first vivid morning when we braved your smoking reef, until now, when we must part, and the jewelled waters of the lagoon lap caressingly against our rusted sides as though loth to let us go! See the figures you have conjured up for us. your liquid-voiced, golden-skinned children, soft of eye, flowerbedecked and laughter-loving, yet quick to tears. They are a proud, splendid, happy race, your children who drift so swiftly toward the silent halls of oblivion. Sadness rests with them in moments of thought and their brown eyes deepen. The white man has come . and the day is not far distant when they must disappear. So much of tragedy has civilization brought to Polynesia!
“Beg pardon, Chief! I did not hear you.. !”
“I said—did you say good-by to Maraama-a?”
Mara-ama-a! Child of the sun and the flashing reef-surf! Mara-ama-a, the epitome of Tahiti! I had met him soon after we docked at Papeete, the sole port of the island, and he had attached himself to me in the character of cicerone in order to do the honors of his home. How vividly his name recalls every crowded minute—the walk across the deserted market place and down a narrow shadowed lane, where the scarlet of bougainville blossoms glowed dimly in the dusk, their fragrance weaving about us like a mantle; across a compound, paved with powdered coral—until we came to a native bird-cage house set back in a grove of mangoes and waving breadfruit.
A Tahitian Home
THE place was built of palm-leaf thatch, with a broad paepae or raised veranda all around. On the paepae crouched a half-dozen native girls, sisters of Mara-ama-a, clad only in the attractive white and crimson of the lavalava. Deferentially they made way for us and we entered a room, large, airy and spotless and bare of furniture, save for one chair.
Tahitian black-lip pearl shells were spread against the base of the walls.
They were the only attempt at adorn-
At my host’s bidding I occupied the chair and he sat on his hams nearby and spoke a low Tahitian word or two.
The Concluding Article in a Series of Sketches of Canada's Merchant Marine
In response his sisters filed through the open door and stood, a silent smiling group before us. At his bidding, a banjo, a mandolin, and an accordion were produced. The girls proved skilled performers, nor did they confine themselves to native airs. The natives are born musicians and speedily pick up melodies heard from visiting
While three of them played, the balance, reinforced by tw’o more who appeared out of the night, swung into the graceful Tahitian dance of love. Low voices took up a song, plaintive and softly sensuous. The board floor resounded to the scuffle of bare brown feet and the rhythm of the music crept into the brain. White teeth flashed. Stars swam in tender brown eyes and the swing of satin bodies drove barbaric blood pounding to the temples.
It was done. Flushed and laughing, the dancers retired and my host and I smoked for a time in silence. Presently he spoke again, summoning the women, and when they
appeared he left the room. He returned a few minutes later with a carved wooden tray on which were piled a number of Tahitian dishes.
There were small birds, resembling sparrows, delicately broiled and spitted upon a twig; there was fish, raw, covered with fermented cocoanut and served with a piquant sauce made of the juice of a mango; toasted crabs came next, followed by prawns—a fibre basket of them; breadfruit, wrapped in pandanus leaves and cooked under hot stones; a young mountain pig, roasted whole and trimmed with yams, and, as a particular delicacy, the crisp fried tentacles of a devilfish. A great bowl of thick cream made by a process of shredding the flesh of green cocoanuts completed the feast. Coffee was the only concession to civilization —that and long green cheroots.
When it came time to retire my host presented a lava-lava and made me don it. We then entered an inner room where the balance of the family had preceded us. The sisters slept upon the floor in a row, with wooden blocks for pillows, and uncovered, save for a diminutive pareu. We took our places beside them and drifted into sleep. So, my first Tahitian night!
The Cercle Bougainville
THE Chief is dozing in his chair. The broad lagoon is a mirror for the sky, sere and purple and dusted with tiny lights. From the shore comes subdued laughter and the fragments of a song. There is a spot of orange among the tamarinds where nestles the Cercle Bougainville, that queer gathering-place of outcasts and gentlemen—where some have come to drown a past and others to create one! They will be there now, on the cloistered veranda, with cigars and drinks and disputatious converse. Big Henri, who juggles with the island phosphate market; the New’ Zealand doctor whose health was shattered at Gallipoli; Palmer, the lean New York newspaperman who speaks not of the city of spindling heights, except to curse; Glendenning, of the twisted mind and biting tongue and livid scar from lip to chin and who, despite his professed misanthropy is worshipped by the human flotsam of the beach; MacDonald, the American copra man who, unto himself, is all things; others, too, some picturesque, some blessedly commonplace.
We had spent many happy evenings in that ill-assorted company which yet, somehow, seemed to fit in with the spirit of the place. The doctor was an enthusiast on government ownership of big industries and generally gave the lead to the discussion. Big Henri, with his vehement gestures and imperfect knowledge of English,' was his ardent foil.
I remember, a few evenings ago, the conversation had been on the romance that lies in the most prosaic things of everyday usage and their connection with the traveldreams of stay-at-homes the world over. The “Cercle” was a place most fit for such a subject, with the deep undertone of the surf, the rustle of moving leaves and the soft chat of Chinese shop-keepers in the street below’.
The Doctor leaned forward to knock his pipe against the veranda rail, then settled back in his chair and leisurely re-filled it.
“How many,” questioned he, “see, in the pearl button and stud of ordinary wear, a vision of splendid goldenskinned Polynesians darting intothe clear green depths of a coral island lagoon, braving tiger-sharks and giant ortopi to gather from the ocean floor the mother-ofpearl shell from which those but tons are made? W ho, among people at home, connect with their customary w ash. shave or shampoo a vista of boiling reef, deep blue sky, sapphire sea C0ntinued on page 63
Merchantmen on the Seven Seas
Continued from page 19
and groves of majestically waving cocoapalms, from the nuts of which is produced cocoanut oil, the basis of so many toilet preparations? How numerous are they who think of a drop of vanilla extract, in terms of sand, and sea and creeping jungle, rising tier on tier of rampant growth until lost in the mauve and gold and purple of mist-encircled volcanic heights?”
It is a natural thought, I suppose, and yet it had not occurred to me. The doctor carried his point still further, to the romance encompassed in the remainder of the cargo that our ship was transporting to the American continent. Hides, hemp, wool—even the most matter-offact casks of sausage skins have their origin in queer and picturesque surroundings.
Palmer ordered drinks. When the soft-footed Chinese boy had retired we smoked and talked for long hours, and then fell silent, drinking in the beauty of the stars. There is something portentous in a South Sea Island night. The dull, constant roar of pounding surf on the barrier reef runs like a sombre chord throughout one’s thoughts as though sounding a warning of great events. Palm fronds whisper lofty confidences in the soft warm breeze. Scraps of native vowel-songs sigh through the jungle growth and the insidious fragrance of tropic flowers is dangerously sweet.
AT SEA again! The heave of restless waters and our topmast/ weaving patterns against the blue. Deadly monotony and an oily sea. We have passed through the palm-bannered atolls of the low Archipelago. Now they are far astern and there is nothing before us save thousands of desolate sea-miles.
There are changes in our little company. Fahie, our old third Engineer, is in an Auckland hospital, delirious with typhoid, and in his stead we have Busby, a New Zealand fledging, who is keen to see the world. A seaman, Skinner, skipped a ship at Melbourne at the request of a ponderous inamorata whom he married three days later. Our French-Canadian deck boy was a casualty at Brisbane, from a complication of non-existent ailments. His place is supplied by a redfaced gentleman rejoicing in the cognomen—"Smiler”—whose perennially grubby person is encased in an Australian army tunic, who boasts not of shoes nor socks but whose delicate soul constantly is bruised by contact with the uncouth oafs of the fo’c’s’le. They are rough with him, he complain-, because he has been to college—but wait until he resumes his rightful place in society! Then they shall see!
Our passenger, too, whom we took at Tahiti for passage home. He is a short, bearded Hebrew, with skin browned almost to the shade of a native, keen of brain, travelled, a lawyer by profession and a Bolshevist by inclination.
His was an epic dream—as he told me in long nights under the Southern Cross. To form a colony on an island which he had bought in the Paumotu Group was his intention—an eugenic colony, the members of which were to subsist on nuts, vegetables, and fruit, wear no clothes and revel in platonicism. Alas! that the French should interfere! Such busybodies, the French! They had requested his immediate departure from the idyllic state before he got well started—and all because of a few thousand Bolshevist pamphlets, transcribed into Tahitian and distributed to the natives for their instruction and amusement. No harm in that, was there? Certainly not! Never mind! He did not care, now. He would find for himself a mate—an unspoiled, eugenic' North American Indian mate, and with her live the simple life in the fastnesses of a Los Angeles suburb. With her, he would work and dream and diving in the limpidness of her unspoiled mind, explore the vastness of the real unreal. No, he was not mad! He was rather a good head, and clever company at times.
One lost member of the outward bound crew is missed not a little by his former companions of the firemen’s fo’c’s’le. This is a man named Chance—a remit-
tance man and a scoundrel of parts, who, by the romantic charm of a vivid personality, had chained his shipmates to his whims, tSir Percy, he was named, and, despite the humbleness of his calling he could look and act the part.
While our ship lay at Brisbane, Australia, he requested his discharge in order, as he said, to join the police force of the city. He had been for long years in a corps of African Mounted Police and knew the game perfectly. He was paid off the ship with about $160 in his pocket.
The following morning, just at daybreak, a soiled, bedraggled wispofwomanhood boarded the ship and asked for the Chief Engineer. After a few words he departed hurriedly with her. The Chief told me the details later.
They followed the wharves to a tumbledown public house, and through a dirty bar to a littered back room. Stretched upon the floor was Chance, his life flowing fast through three great knife wounds, inadequately staunched with fragments of a tattered petticoat. He was cut in the shoulder, his right breast was ripped to the ribs and his handsome face was slashed in a triangular cut that swept from nose to temple, thence to jaw and laid his molars bare! His clothing was in ribbons and soaked in coagulated blood. He was caked in filth and what parts of him were visible beneath the horrible mess were bruised beyond description.
His plight was the result of a drunken row with dockside thugs in the early hours of the morning, the Chief was told —and that he still lived was due only to the womanly compassion and tender care ®f the rouge-flecked derelict who held his dripping head.
He was removed to a hospital. It was all the Chief could do, as we were sailing at ten o’clock. What mad deed, I wonder, will put a final quietus on that lurid souled adventurer!
Landfall at Last
NEARING the Canal once more! The passage from Tahiti has been tedious and we are nearly out of fresh meat. All hands dream of vegetables, and fruit, and clear fresh water. Even a bit of weather would have been welcomed as a break in the even run of days and nights. We are expecting a landfall tonight and the lookout is on the alert. All afternoon the Master and the Watch Officers have been gazing through binoculars, although, so far, nothing has rewarded their efforts.
Through the Canal in a blaze of tropical sunlight, a short pause on the Caribbean side to lay in fresh stores, in the course of which a case of thirty dozen of eggs became detached from the rest of the provisions and disappeared without trace, and now we are running up a Northing which brings us each day nearer
Cold weather and a rough sea. Sparks and I sat in his cabin last night with receivers clamped to our skulls, and despite the crying of the wind and the barnyard din of sea-wanderers cutting in on the program, heard with singular distinctness a radiophone concert, broadcasted from New York, several hundred miles
There is snow and sleet with the wind tonight, and the decks are too slippery for walking. Our blood is thin from long sojourn in the tropics and we shiver miserably—and yet there is a kick in the keen air that makes us glad to be alive.
New Jersey’s snow-clad hills. Greatcoats and mufflers. Sea boots and woollen socks.
New York, to discharge cargo. A few days suffice, and then on to Boston. Three days there. Once more the Blue Peter fluttering at the masthead. Truly homeward bound this time. Forty-eight hours of steaming through wintry seas, with the snap of frost in the air and heavy boots clumping the decks to keep our toes alive. A panorama of snowy coast line. Blue Hills that fade into the mist. Fishing schooners shouldering through the freezing seas. Another brilliant morning alive with sun and wind and sparkling water. Halifax harbor! Our Lady of the Snows!