IN the pare de Bougainville I sat down on a bench on which was an old European. He was reading a tattered number of “Simplicissimus,” and held the paper close to his watery eyes. I said, “Good morning” and he replied in fluent though accented English.
His appearance was eccentric. He was stout, and with a, rough, white beard all over his face and neck, and even on his chest. He wore a frock coat and a large cowboy hat of white felt. His sockless feet were in old base-ball shoes of “eelskin,” which were of the exact color of his coat, a dull green, like moldy, dried peas. Apparently the coat was his only garment; but it was capacious, and came almost to his knobby knees. Missing buttons down its front were replaced by bits of cord or rope. The pockets were stuffed with papers, mangos, and a hunk of bread. A stump of lead-pencil was behind his ear. His hair, a dusty white, met the frayed collar of the coat, and through the temporary gaps which he made in its length to cool his body; I saw it like a gnarled and mossy tree. His hands were grimy and his nails black-edged, but there was intellect in his eye, and a broken force in his huddled, loosed attitude. He was not decrepit, or with a trace of humility, but had the ease of the philosopher and also his detachment. It was plain he did the best he could with his garb, and was entirely undisturbed, and perhaps even unmindful, of its ludicrousness. He was as serene as Diogenes must have been when he crawled naked from his tub into the sun.
We talked first of the horses in the lagoon a dozen yards from us, their grooms or their owners submerging them, and squatting on the ground to chat as the horses wallowed willingly in five feet of salt water. We agreed that the Tahitians were as bad drivers as the Chinese, and that they were, wittingly or unwittingly, cruel to their beasts of burden. This led to a discussion of native traits, and he was caustic in his castigation of the Tahitians. He asked me my name and what brought me to Tahiti ; and when, wanting to be as honest-spoken as he, I said, “Romance, adventure,” he burst out that I was crazy.
“I have been here seventeen years,” he said bitterly –”me, Ivan Stroganoff, who was once happy as secretary to the governor of Irkutsk! I was better off when I was on the Merrimac fighting the Monitor, or with Mosby, the guerilla, than I am in this accursed island. I think a man is mad who can leave Tahiti and stays here. I wish I could go away. I would like to die elsewhere. I am eighty years old, I starve here, and I sleep in a chicken-coop in the suburbs.”
“You are lodged exactly as was Charlie Stoddard, who wrote `South Sea Idylls,’ ” I interposed.
“They have lied always, those writers about Tahiti,” said Ivan Stroganoff. “Melville, Loti, Moerenhout, Pallander, your Stevenson,I don’t know that Stoddard,all are meretricious, with their pomp of words and no truth. I have comparisons to make with other nations. I am more than sixty years a traveler, and I am here seventeen years without cessation, in hell all the time.”
“You Russians always like the French. How about their achievements here?” I questioned, hoping to lift his shade of melancholy.
“The French?” he repeated. “They are brigands and weak governors. They have been in Tahiti four generations. Do you want to know how they got hold here? A monarchy, a foolish Louis, sent a marine savant and soldier named Dumont D’Urville to the South Seas with the casual orders :
” `D’apprivoiser les hommes, et de rendre les femmes un peu plus sauvages;’ to tame the men and make the women a little more savage. The French did both, and took all of this part of the world they could find unseized by Europe, and tamable, at not too great a shedding of French blood. They said that it was their duty to restore Temoana his kingdom in the Marquesas Islands, eight hundred miles from here, northward. Temoana had been a singer of psalms at the Protestant mission in his valley of Tai-o-hae, in the island of Nukahiva, a victim of shanghaiers, a cook on a whaler, a tattooed man in English penny shows, a repatriate, a protege of the Catholic archbishop of the Marquesans, and finally, through the influence of the Roman church, a king. He worked damned hard for the French flag and the church, and the generous colonial bureau of France paid his widow a pension of ten dollars a month until she died of melancholy among the nuns. I knew her and I knew men who knew him. He was given a gorgeous uniform of gold lace by his promoters, which I think killed him, though when he sweated, he would strip to his handsomely marked skin and sit naked in the breeze. The queen never wore more than a diaper or a gown.
“With the Marquesas Islands taken, the French warships came to Tahiti. French Catholic priests had been deported from here because the Protestants were al-ready in possession, and objected to competition, saying that the priests were children of Beelzebub, and taught false doctrines and morals. The Queen of Tahiti, whose dynasty the Protestant missionaries had created, advised the pope’s men to seek a heathen people not already worshiping the true God. The zealous priests who had come with explicit commands to found a mission in Tahiti, launched the curse of Rome upon the king, the Protestant ministers, and especially upon Mr. Pritchard, the British consul and the queen’s physician and spiritual adviser.
“Pritchard had the interests of England and the Lord at heart, and his whispers in the queen’s ear sent the earnest priests aboard a ship bound for a distant port. They complained, and the French admiral then arrived and pointed his guns at the palace and the Protestant mission, and demanded thirty thousand dollars for the insult to the French flag; and for the jibe at the pope, the matching of every Protestant church in the islands by a Catholic edifice. The queen had a panic and fled to Moorea in a canoe. The admiral then put Consul Pritchard in jail for ten days, and after chastening his mood, put him on an English ship at sea homeward bound. France and England were showing their teeth at each other over more important differences, which ended in a revolution in Paris and a change of kings, so that the admiral had his way. The queen came back, the priests established their mission and their churches, and the Tahitians with any blood in them went to war again. The French built forts about the island, and killed off with their guns all the natives they could get sight of. Then they took all the other islands around here that England did n’t have, declared Tahiti had to be a protectorate in 1843, and in 1880 gave King Pomare Fifth twelve thousand dollars a year to let them annex his kingdom. You see, after all, his crown was made by the British puritans, and taken from him by the French or Romish Church.”
The aged Russian laughed in his huge whiskers. He fished in the rear of his frock and produced the stump of a cigar, for which I yielded a match.
“I found that on the steps of the Roman Catholic bishop’s carriage, which was standing near here an hour ago,” he said. “They ‘ll tell you that you will burn in hell; but they smoke here, and good Havana tobacco.”
“I think it ‘s a pity the Tahitians weren’t left alone,” I asserted.
He gave me a look such as Diogenes might have given the man who stood in his sunlight. He lit his cigar-end, puffed it diligently for a minute, and then said arbitrarily:
“The Tahitian is, first, a coward, afraid to fight the white ; but if he can, in a group or by secret, kill or hurt you, he will. He is treacherous, and the more he pretends to be your friend, the more he connives to cheat you. I should have said first of all that he is lazy, but that is not to be disputed. He was corrupt to begin with, and religion accentuates every evil passion in him. He is a profound hypocrite, and yet a puritan for observance of the ceremonies and interdictions of his faith. He has more guile than a Japanese guide, and in land deals can skin a Moscow Jew. He will sell you land and get the money, and later prove that his father or brother is the real owner, and that relation will do the same, and you will pay several times for the same land. In the Paumotus, where the missionaries are like a swarm of gnats, this deception is threefold as bad.”
“But the Tahitians are at least generous,” I broke in.
Stroganoff combed his whiskers with a twig of the flamboyant tree under which we .sat. He glared at me.
“Generous! If you have money they will overwhelm you with presents, looking for a double return; but if you are poor, they will treat you as dirt under their feet. I know, for I am poor, and I live among them. They are like those mina birds here, which will steal the button off your coat if you do not guard it.”
“Does not Christianity improve them?”
“No. The combats between Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons ended all hope of that. They are never sincere except when they become fanatics, and even then they never lose their native superstitions. Beliefs in the ghosts of Tahiti, the tupapau, ihoiho, and varua ino, are common to all of them.”
“My dear Mr. Stroganoff,” I expostulated, “your czars believed in icons. My grandmother believed in werewolves and banshees, and we burned blessed candles and sprinkled holy water in our houses on All Souls night to keep away demons. I have seen a clergyman, educated in Paris and Louvain, exorcising devils with bell, book, and candle in Maryland, in ,one of the oldest and proudest cities of the United States. I have seen the American Governor-General of the Philippines carrying a candle in a procession in honor of a mannikin from a shrine at Antipolo, near Manila. Why, I could tell you”
“Please, please, let me talk,” Ivan Stroganoff interrupted. “What I say is true, nevertheless. The Tahitian has not one good quality. He is not to be compared with the American negro for any desirable trait.”
“Do you know the negro?” I asked.
The old man grunted. He relit his cigar, now only an inch long, and said :
“I was on the Merrimac when she fought the Monitor in two engagements. I was a sailor on other Confederate men-of-war. I was one of Colonel Mosby’s guerillas, and was wounded with them. I have lived thirteen years in the United States. I know the coon well. I fought to keep him a slave.”
“You are not an American?”
“I am a Russian, an anarchist once, and now I am for Root and Lodge, the stand-pats. I lived in Russia in its darkest days, under several czars, when your life was the forfeit of a wink. I was a lawyer there, a politician, an intrigant. I knew Bebel and Jaures and the men before them. I lived in Germany many years, in France, in England, anywhere, everywhere. I first came to New York from Siberia. I was broke. The Civil War-was on. There were agents of Lee and Jeff Davis in New York seeking sailors. They offered lots of money,–thousands,and I went along, smuggled into the South by an underground road.”
Stroganoff threw away the shreds of tobacco, now a mere fiery wafer that threatened his mouth’s seine of silver strands. He put his hand in his Prince Albert and scratched his stomach.
“Mr. Stroganoff,” I queried, with a moral tide rising, “how could you join in a life-and-death issue like that of the. Civil War, and kill men without hatred of their cause in your heart? ”
He patted my shoulder.
“My dear young American,” he replied, “you join anything, even a sheriff’s posse, into which you are dragged, and have a bullet from the other side slit your ear, or a round shot bang against your deck, and you’ll soon convince yourself that you are in the right, or, any-way, that your adversary is a scoundrel. I handled a gun on the Merrimac in Hampton Roads when that cheese-box of a Monitor rattled her solid shot on our slippery sides. I was two years in that damned un-Civil War, and as I started on the Southern side, I stayed on it. I left the navy to go with John Mosby and burn houses. When the war was over, and I re-covered from my wound, I went to ‘Frisco and crossed to Siberia, and thus back to Moscow. No, I never was an exile in Siberia or in a Russian prison. I knew and worked for the leaders of the old Nihilists. I was with them till I knew them, and then I saw they were selfish and fakers. I knew the socialist chiefs in France and Germany, the fathers of the present movement there. I was red-hot for the cause until I knew them, and I quit.”
He sat meditatively for a few moments.
“I ‘m all but eighty years old,” the raider of the ’60′s continued sorrowfully. “I work now for Chinese, pre-paring their mail, their custom-house papers, and orders. I scrape along like a watchdog in a sausage factory, getting sufficient to eat, but fearful all the time that the job will kill me. Most of the time I live a few kilo-meters from Papeete, toward Fa’a, and come in to town about steamer-time. I sleep in the chicken-coop or anywhere. I make about forty francs a month.” He stamped upon the grass. “I take it you are a journalist, and, do you know, what is needed here most is publicity. Graft permeates the whole scheme. Mind you, there are no secrets. You could not whisper anything to a cocoanut-tree but that the entire island would know it to-morrow. But there is no open publicity. Start a newspaper !”
“In what language?” I demanded, interested.
“Huh? That ‘s it. If in French, only the French would read it; and if in Tahitian, the French won’t touch it; and English is known only by the Chinese and the few British and Americans here. I hate that Tahitian. I don’t know a word of it after seventeen years. Say what you will, Roosevelt made them stand around. I liked him for many things ; but, after all, the old order must stand, and Root is the boy for me. This fellow Wilson is a regular pedagogue.”
“But they have newspapers here?” I asked. “Newspapers? They call them that.”
He stood up and searched in the pockets of his voluminous coat, which he opened. I saw that the lining was of silk, but now worn and torn. He brought out a roll of papers.
“Here is `La Tribune de Tahiti,’ ” he said. “It is edited by Jean Delpit, the lawyer whose offices are next to the Bellevue Restaurant. It ‘s a monthly, published in San Francisco, and has a brief summary of world events, besides articles on the administrative affairs of Tahiti. It ‘s against the Government. Then there ‘s `Le Liberal,’ a socialist journal, with Eugene Brunschwig editor, which pours hot shot into the Government. Look at his announcement! Do you under-stand that? He is fierce. He is an anarchist and wants to be bought up. Of course he is attacking from outside Tahiti.
“There is no newspaper printed here except the `Journal Officiel’ which, of course, is not a newspaper, but a gazette of governmental notices, etc. The Government has its own printing-office, but if these other, the `Tribune’ and the `Liberal,’ had establishments here, they would be raided and closed, for they would hardly be allowed to criticize the Government as harshly as they do. The `Tribune’ is in French and Tahitian, the `Liberal’ and the `Journal Officiel’ in French. One time it was recommended that the official paper might be more popular if it had some fiction for the natives, so they printed a translation of `Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,’ but everybody laughed, so it was dropped.
“The Mormons have the best paper here. It is a monthly, too. There is plenty need here for a fearless newspaper. The faults, weaknesses, and venality of the Government call for publicity, but I’m afraid the journalist might soon find himself in prison. You can do nothing. The fault is in this damned climate-la fievre du corail. Paul Deschanel, senator of France, who wrote a book on this island without ever leaving his chair in Paris, says :
“In presence of the apparent facts one is forced to ask him-self if there is not in the climate of this enchanted Tahiti; in ” the soft air that one breathes, a force sweet but invincible which at length penetrates the soul, enervates the will and enfeebles all sense of usefulness or right, or the least energy necessary to make them triumph.
“It is this spirit, without any harmony, bereft of all real cordiality between neighbors, of family and family, which one must find in the ambient air and which is called the coral fever.”
“It torments these French, former sailors or petty officials gone into trade or speculation, with delusions and ambitions of grandeur. There is no remedy. The King of Apamama said it all when he divided the whites into three classes, `First, him cheat a litty; second, him cheat plenty; and third, him cheat too much.’ ”
Stroganoff got on his feet, rubbed his knees to limber them, and began to move off slowly toward Fa’a, his place of abode.
“But, Mr. Stroganoff,” I called to him, “you said all that about the Tahitians, also.”
The Russian octogenarian drew an overripe mango from his skirt, and bit into it, with dire results to his whiskers and coat,it should be eaten only in a bathtub, and replied wearily :
“I except nobody here.”