THE Tiare Hotel was the center of English-speaking life in Papeete. Almost all tourists stayed there, and most of the white residents other than the French took meals there. The usual
traveler spent most of his time in and about the hotel, and from it made his trips to the country districts or to other islands. Except for two small restaurants kept by Europeans, the Tiare was the only eating-place in the capital of Tahiti unless one counted a score of dismal coffee-shops kept by Chinese, and frequented by natives, sailors, and beach-combers. They were dark, disagreeable recesses, with grimy tables and forbidding utensils, in which wretchedly made coffee was served with a roll for a few sous; one of them also offered meats of a questionable kind.
The Tiare Hotel was five minutes’ walk from the quay, at the junction of the rue de Rivoli and the rue de Petit Pologne, close by Pont du Remparts. It was a one-storied cottage, with broad verandas, half hidden in a luxuriant garden at the point where two streets come together at a little stone bridge crossing a brook-a tiny bungalow built for a home, and stretched and pieced out to make a guest-house.
I was at home there after a few days as if I had known no other dwelling. That is a distinctive and compelling charm of Tahiti, the quick possession of the new-comer by his environment, and his unconscious yielding to the demands of his novel surroundings, opposite as they might be to his previous habitat.
Very soon I was filled with the languor of these isles. I hardly stirred from my living-place. The bustle of the monthly steamship-day died with the going of the Noa-Noa, the through passengers departing in angry mood because their anticipated hula dance had been a disappointmentwickedness shining feebly through cotton gowns when they had expected nudity in a pas seal of abandonment. There was a violent condemnation by the duped men of “unwarranted interference by the French Government with natural and national expression.”
Hogg, an American business traveler, said “The Barbary Coast in Frisco had Tahiti skinned a mile for the real thing,” and Stevens, a London broker, that the dance was “bally tame for four bob.”
Papeete, with the passing throng gone, was a quiet little town, contrasting with the hours when the streets swarmed with people from here and the suburbs, the band playing, the bars crowded, and all efforts for gaiety and coquetry and the selling of souvenirs and intoxicants. What exotic life there was beyond the clubs, the waterfront, and the Asiatic quarter revolved-around the Tiare, and entirely so because of its proprietress, Lovaina. She was the best-known and best-liked woman in all these South Seas, remembered from Australia to the Paumotus, from London to China, wherever were people who had visited Tahiti, as “dear old Lovaina.”
She was very large. She was huge in every sense, weighing much more than three hundred pounds, and yet there was a singular grace in her form and her movements. Her limbs were of the girth of breadfruit-trees, and her bosom was as broad and deep as that of the great Juno of Rome, but her hands were beautiful, like a plump baby’s, with fascinating creases at the wrists, and long, tapering fingers. Her large eyes were hazel, and they were very brilliant when she was merry or excited. Her expansive face had no lines in it, and her mouth was a perfection of curves, the teeth white and even. Her hair was red-brown, curling in rich profusion, scented with the hinano-flower, adorning her charmingly poised head in careless grace.
When she said, “I glad see you,” there was a glow of amiability, an alluring light in her countenance, that drew one irresistibly to her, and her immense, shapely hand enveloped one’s own with a pressure and a warmth that were overpowering in their convincement of her good heart and illimitable generosity.
Lovaina was only one fourth Tahitian, all the remain-der of her racial inheritance being American; but she was all Tahitian in her traits, her simplicity, her devotion to her friends, her catching folly as it flew, and her pride in a new possession.
One morning I got up at five o’clock and went to the bath beside the kitchen. It was a shower, and the water from the far Fautaua valley the softest, most delicious to the body, cool and balmy in the heat of the tropic. Coming and going to baths here, whites throw off easily the fear of being thought immodest, and women and men alike go to and fro in loin-cloths, pajamas, or towels. I wore the pareu, the red strip of calico, bearing designs by William Morris, which the native buys instead of his original one of tapa, the beaten cloth made from tree bark or pith.
I met Lovaina coming out of the shower, a sheet about her which could not cover half of her immense and regal body. She hesitatedI was almost a stranger,-and in a vain effort to do better, trod on the sheet, and pulled it to her feet. I picked it up for her.
“I shamed for you see me like this!” she said.
I was blushing all over, though why I don’t know, but I faltered:
“Like a great American Beauty rose.”
“Faded rose too big,” exclaimed Lovaina, with the faintest air of coquetry as I hastily shut the door.
A little while later, when I came to the dining-room for the first breakfast, I met Lovaina in a blue-figured aahu of muslin and lace, a close-fitting, sweeping night-gown, the single garment that Tahitians wear all day and take off at night, a tunic, or Mother Hubbard, which reveals their figures without disguise, unstayed, unpetticoated. Lovaina was, as always, barefooted, and she took me into her garden, one of the few cultivated in Tahiti, where nature makes man almost superfluous in the decoration of the earth.
“This house my father give me when marry,” said Lovaina. “My God! you just should seen that arearea! Las’ all day, mos’ night. We j us’ move in. Ban’s playin’ from warship, all merry drinkin’, dancin’. Never such good time. I tell you nobody could walk barefoot one week, so much broken glass in garden an’ street.”
Her goodly flesh shook with her laughter, her darkening eyes suffused with happy tears at the memory, and she put her broad hand between my shoulders for a moment as if to draw me into the rejoicing of her wedding feast. She led me about the garden to show me how she had from year to year planted the many trees, herbs, and bushes it contained. It had set out to be formal, but, like most efforts at taming the fierce fecundity cundity of nature in these seas, had become a tangle of verdure, for though now and then combed into some regularity, the breezes, the dogs, the chickens, and the invading people ruffled it, the falling leaves covered the grass, and – the dead branches sighed for burial. Down the narrow path she went ponderously, showing me the cannas, jasmine and rose, picking a lime or a tamarind, a bouquet of mock-orange flowers, smoothing the tuberoses, the hibiscus of many colors, the oleanders, maile ilima, Star of Bethlehem, frangipani, and, her greatest love, the tiare Tahiti. There were snake plants, East-India cherries, coffee-bushes, custard-apples, and the hinano, the sweetness of which and of the tiare made heavy the air.
I said that we had no flower in America as wonderful in perfume as these.
Lovaina stopped her slow, heavy steps. She raised her beautiful, big hand, and arresting my attention, she exclaimed:
“You know that of hinano! Ol’ time we use that Tahiti cologne. Girl put that on pareu an’ on dress, by an’ by make whole body jus’ like flower. That set man crazee; make all man want kiss an’ hug.”
Doubtless, our foremothers when they sought to win the hunters of their tribes, took the musk, the civet, and the castor from the prey laid at their feet, and made maddening their smoke- and wind-tanned bodies to the cave-dwellers. When they became more housed and more clothed, they captured the juices of the flowers in nutshells, and later in stone bottles, until now science disdains animals and flowers, but takes chemicals and waste products to make a hundred essences and unguents and sachets for toilet and boudoir. These odors of the hinano and tiare were philters worthy of the beautiful Tahitian girls, with their sinuous, golden bodies so sensualized, so passionate, and so free.
The ordinary life of the Tiare Hotel was all upon the broad verandas which surrounded it, their high lattices covered with the climbing bougainvillea and stephanotis vines, which formed a maze for the filtering of the sunlight and the dimming of the activities of the streets. On these verandas were the tables for eating, and in the main bungalow a few bedrooms, with others in detached cottages within the inclosure.
There was a parlor, and it was like the parlors of all ambitious Europeans or Americans in all islandsa piano with an injured tone, chairs blue and scarlet with plush covers that perspiring sitters of years had made dark brown, a phonograph, and signed photo-graphs of friends and visitors who had said farewell to Tahiti. There were paintings of flowers by Lovaina, showing not a little talent and much feeling. All these were the pride of her birthright”Murricaine” fashion, as the hostess said pensively.
I have said that the life of the hotel was upon the veranda, and so it was at mealtime and for the casual tourist staying a day with a steamship to or from New Zealand or the United States; but to the resident of Tahiti, the American, Britisher, or non-Latin European, the place of interest in Papeete other than the clubs was a small porch approached from the street by a few steps.
On this tiny porch was a large table, and behind it a couch. The table was the only desk for letter-writing, the serving-stand for meals, the board for salad and cake-making, and the drink-bar. A few feet removed from this table, and against the wall, was a camphor-wood chest on which two might sit in comfort and three might squeeze at angles. In the chest was kept all the bed and table linen, so that one might often be disturbed by the quest of sheets or napkins.
Upon this little porch the kitchen, bath, and toilets opened, a few feet from the table. It was the sleeping and amusement quarters of five dogs, the loafing place for the girls, the office of the hotel, the entry for guests to the dining-room or to the other conveniences. Through it streamed all who came to eat or drink or for any other purpose. The hotel having grown slowly from a home, hardly any changes of plumbing had been made, and men and women in dressing-gowns, in pajamas, or in other undress came and went, under the interested gaze of idlers and drinkers, and they had often to endure intimate questions or badinage. All were on a footing as to the arrangements, and I saw the haughty duchess of the Noa-Noa follow Lovaina’s American negro chauffeur, while a former ambassador waited on the chest. There was no distinction of rank, since Tahiti, excepting for an occasional French official, was the purest democracy of manners in the world, a philosophy the whites had learned from the natives, who think all foreigners equally distinguished.
Those not of the South Seas, and unused to the primitive publicity of the natural functions there, suffered intensely at first from embarrassment, but in time for-got their squeamishness, and perhaps learned to carry on conversations with those who drank or chatted outside.
The Tahitian cook slept all day between meals on a chair, with his head hanging out a window. He was ill often from a rush of blood to his head. Lovaina had offered him a mat to lie on the floor, but he pleaded his habit. All the refuse of the kitchen was thrown into the garden under this window, and with the horses, chickens, dogs, and cats it was first come, first served.
On the couch back of the table Lovaina sat for many hours every day. Her great weight made her disindined to walk, and from her cushions she ruled her do-main, chaffing with those who dropped in for drinks, advising and joking, making cakes and salads, bargaining with the butcher and vegetable-dealer, despatching the food toward the tables, feeding many dogs, posting her accounts, receiving payments, and regulating the complex affairs of her menage. She would shake a cocktail, make a gin-fizz or a Doctor Funk, chop ice or do any menial service, yet withal was your entertainer and your friend. She had the striking, yet almost inexplicable, dignity of the Maorithe facing of life serenely and without reserve or fear for the morrow.
Underneath the table dogs tumbled, or raced about the porch, barking and leaping on laps, cats scurried past, and a cloud of tobacco smoke filled the close air. Lovaina, in one of her sixty bright gowns, a white chemise beneath, her feet bare, sat enthroned. On the chest were the captain of a liner or a schooner, a tourist, a trader, a girl, an old native woman, or a beach-comber with money for the moment. It was the carpet of state on which all took their places who would have a hearing before the throne or loaf in the audience-chamber.
In her low, delightfully broken English, in vivid French, or sibilant Tahitian, Lovaina issued her orders to the girls, shouted maledictions at the cook, or talked with all who came. Through that porch flowed all the scandal of the South Seastales of hurricanes and waterspouts, of shipwrecks, of accidents, of lucky deals in pearls or shells, of copra, of new fashions and old inhabitants, of liaisons of white and brown, of the flirtations of tourists, of the Government’s issuing an ultimatum on the price of fish, of how the consuls quarreled at a club dinner, and of how one threw three ribs of roasted beef at the other, who retorted with a whole sucking pig just from the native oven, of Thomas’ wife leaving him for Europe after a month’s honeymoon; and all the flotsam and jetsam of report and rumor, of joke and detraction, which in an island with only one mail a month are the topics of interest. ‘
The porch was the clearing-house and the casual, oral record of the spreading South Seas. It was the strangest salon of any capital, and Lovaina the most fascin-Eating of hostesses. Stories that would be frowned down in many a man’s club were laughed at lightly over the table, but not when tourists, new-comers, were present. Then the dignified Lovaina, repressing the oaths of potvaliant skippers, putting her finger to her lips when a bald assertion was imminent, said impressively:
“That swears don’t go! What you think? To give bad name my good house?”
Only when old-timers were gathered, between steam-ships, when the schooners came in a drove from the Paumotu atolls, and gold and silver rang on the table at all hours, there was little restraint.
With only one mail a month to disturb the monotony, and but trifling interest in anything north of the equator except prices of their commodities, these unrepressed rebels against the conventions and even the laws of the Occident must have their fling. On that camphor-wood chest had sat many a church-going woman and dignified man of Europe or America, resident fora, month or longer in Tahiti, and shuddered at what they heardshuddered and listened, eager to hear those curious incidents and astonishing opinions about life and affairs, and to mark the difference between this and their own countries. It was without even comment that people who at home or among the conventions would be shocked at the subjects or their treatment. in these islands listened thrilled or chucklingly to stories as naked as the children. Double entendre is caviar- to the average man and woman of Tahiti, who call the unshrouded spade by its aboriginal name. The Tahitians were ever thus, and the French have not sought to correct their ways. I heard Atupu, one of the girls of the hotel, in a Rabelaisian passage of wit the while she opened Seattle beer for thirsty Britishers, old residents, traders, and planters. One could not publish the phrases if one could translate them.
Lovaina, in her bed just off the porch, was laughing at the retorts of Atupu, who by her native knowledge of the tongue was discomfiting the roisterers, who spoke it haltingly. I heard an apt interjection on the part of the proprietress which set them all roaring, and so lowered their self-esteem that they left summarily.
One day when I was hurrying off to swim in the lagoon, I asked Lovaina to guard a considerable sum of money in bank-notes. She assented readily, but when several days later I mentioned the money she struck her head in alarm. She thought and thought, but could not remember in what safe place she had hidden the paper francs.
“My God! Brien,” she said in desperation, “all time I jus’ like that crazee way. One time one engineer big steamship come here, he ask me keep two thousan’ dollar for him. I busy jus’ like always, an’ I throw behin’ that couch I sit on. My God! he come back I fore-get where I put. One day we look hard. I suffer turribil, but the nex’ day I move couch and find money. Was n’t that funny?”
I suggested we try the couch again, but though we turned up a number of lost odds and ends, it was not the cache of my funds. By way of cheering her, I ordered a rum punch, and when she went to crack the ice, a gleam of remembrance came to her, and, lo! my money was found in the reserve butter supply in the refrigerator, where she had artfully placed it out of harm’s way. It was quite greasy, but intact.
The first breakfast at the Tiare began at 6:30, but lingered for several hours. It was of fruit and coffee and bread; papayas, bananas, oranges, pineapples, and alligator-pears, which latter the French call avocats, the Mexicans ahuacatl, and were brought here from the West Indies. To this breakfast male guests dropped in from the bath in pajamas, but the dejeuner a la fourchette, or second breakfast at eleven, was more formal, and of four courses, fish, bacon and eggs, curry and rice, tongues and sounds, beefsteak and potatoes, feis, roast beef or mutton, sucking pig, and cabbage or sauer-kraut. For dessert there was sponge- or cocoanut-cake. All business in Papeete opened at seven o’clock and closed at eleven, to reopen from one until five. Dinner at half-past six o’clock was a repetition of the late breakfast except that a vegetable or cabbage soup was also served.
Two Chinese youths, To Sen and Hon Son, were the regular waiters, but were supplemented by Atupu, Iromea, Pepe, Akura, Tetua, Maru, and Juillet, all Tahitian girls or young women who had a mixed status of domestics, friends, kinfolk, visitors, and hetairae, the latter largely in the sense of entertainers. I doubt if they were paid more than a trifle, and they were from the country districts or near-by islands, moths drawn by the flame of the town to soar in its feverish heat, to singe their wings, and to grow old before their time, or to grasp the opportunity to satiate their thirst for foreign luxuries by semi-permanent alliances with whites.
Lovaina’s girls! How their memory must survive with the guests of the Tiare Hotel ! One read of them in every book of travel encompassing Tahiti. One heard of them from every man who had dropped upon this beach. Once in Mukden,Manchuria, I sat up half the night while the American consul and a globe-trotter painted for me the portraits of Lovaina’s girls.
I was atop a disorderly camel named Mark Twain nosing about the Sphinx when my companion remarked that that stony-faced lady looked a good deal like Temanu of Lovaina’s. Then I had to have the whole story of Lovaina and her household. I have heard it away from Tahiti a dozen times and always different.
Doubtless, in the dozen years the gentle Lovaina ministered to the needs of travelers and residents, many girls came and went in her house. Some have married, and some have gone away without a ring, but all have been made much of by those they served, and have lived gayly and by the way.
Lovaina, herself, said to me :
“You know those girl’, they go ruin. That girl you see here few minutes ago I bring her up just like Christian; be good, be true, do her prayers, make her soul all right. Then I go San Francisco. What you think? When I come back she ruin. ‘Most break my heart. That man he come to me, he say : `Lovaina, I take good care that girl. I love her.’ That girl with him now. She happy, got plenty dress, plenty best to eat, and nice buggy. I tell you, I give up trying save those girl’. I think they like ruin best. I turn my backthey ruin.”
Iromea was the sturdy veteran of the corps. Tall, handsome, straight,, mother of four children, obliging, wise in the way of the white, herself all native.
“And the babies?” I inquired.
“They all scatter. Some in country; some different place,” answered Iromea, who ran from English to French to Tahitian, but of course not with the ease of Lovaina, for that great heart knew many of the cities of her father’s land, was educated in needlework style, and with a little dab of Yankee culture, now fast disappearing as she grew older. One marked that tendency to reversion to the native type and ways among many islanders who had been superficially coated with civilization, but whom environment and heredity claim inexorably.
Iromea was thirty years old. She had been loved by many white men, men of distinction here; sea-rovers, merchants, and lotus-eaters, writers, painters, and. wastrels.
Juillet, whose native name was Tiurai, helped old Madame Rose to care for the rooms at the Tiare. She was thirteen years old, willowy, with a beautiful, smiling face, and two long, black plaits. Though innocent, almost artless, in appearance, she was an arch coquette, and flirted with old and young. One day a turkey that shared the back yard with two automobiles, a horse, three carriages, several dogs, ten cats, and forty chickens, disappeared. Juillet was sent to find the turkey. She was gone four days, and came back with a brilliant new gown. She brought with her the turkey, which she said she had been trying to drive back all the four days.
Juillet was named for the month of July. Her mother was the cook of a governor when she was born on the fourteenth of July, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastile, and the governor named her for the month. She was also named Nohorae, and noho means to be naked and rae forehead. Juillet had a high forehead.
Lovaina pointed out to me the man who had taken away her favorite helper. He was about forty years old, tall, angular, sharp-nosed, with gold eyeglasses. I would have expected to meet him in the vestry of a church or to have been asked by him at a mission if I were saved, but in Tahiti he had gone the way of all flesh. His voice had the timbre of the preacher. He had come to the hotel in an expensive, new automobile to fetch cooked food for himself and Ruine.
“Seven or eight leper that man support,” said Lovaina to me. “They die for him, he so good to them. He help everybodee. He give them leper the Bible, and sometime he go read them.”
It would be the Song of Solomon he would read to Ruine. She had red hair, red black or black red, a not unusual color in Tahiti, and her eyes had a glint of red in their brown. She was exquisite in her silken peignoir, a wreath of scarlet hibiscus-flowers on her head, and a string of gorgeous baroque pearls about her rounded neck.
My room at the Tiare was in the upper story of an old house that sat alone in the back garden, among the domestics, automobiles, carriages, horses, pigs, and fowls. The house had wide verandas all about it, and the stairway outside. A few nights after I had arrived in Tahiti I was writing letters on the piazza, the length of the room away from the stairs. I had a lamp on my table, and the noise of my typewriter hushed the sounds of any one entering the apartment. It was about ten o’clock, and between sentences I looked at the night. The stars were in coruscating masses, the riches of the heavens disclosed as only at such a cloudless hour in this southern hemisphere, the Milky Way showing ten thousand gleaming members of the galaxy that are hidden in our skies. I thought of’ those happy mariners who first sailed their small, wooden ships into these mysterious seas, and first of our race, saw this strangely brilliant macrocosm, and appreciated it for its marvels and its differences from their own bleaker, Western vault.
There were no doors in the openings into my room from the verandas, but hangings of gorgeous scarlet calico, pareus, kept out the blazing sun, and lent a little privacy at night. All the furniture was a chair, a dressing-table, and two large beds, canopied with mosquito-nets, evidently provided for a double lodging if needed.
As I finished my letters twenty feet away, a Tahitian girl parted the farther curtain nearest the stairway, and slipped into the room with the silence of the accustomed barefooted. Imagine her in her gayest gown of rose color, a garland of hinano-flowers on her glossy head, her tawny hair in two plaits to her unconfined waist, and her eyes shining with the spirit of her quest!
She looked through the room to where I sat in the semi-obscurity, and then knelt down by the first bed, and waited. I gazed again at the starry heavens, and, stepping over the threshold, entered the chamber, lamp in hand. I undressed leisurely, and putting about me the pareu Lovaina had given me, I threw the light upon the two beds to make my nightly choice. I surveyed them both critically, but the one nearest to me having the netting arranged for entrance, I selected it, and setting the lamp upon the dresser, extinguished it, groped to the bed in darkness, and lay down upon the coverless sheet. A few minutes I stayed awake going over the happenings of the day, and fell asleep in joyful mood that I was in the island I had sought so long in desire and dream. I knew nothing of my visitor, for she had made no audible sound, and the shadows had hidden her.
At breakfast the next morning I was waited on by Atupu, the beauty. Her face was tear-stained, and a deep weariness was upon her. She regarded me with a glance of mixed anger and hurt.
“Vows etes f ache avec moi?” she inquired accusingly. “I angry with you?” I repeated. “Why what have I done to show it?”
And then she told me of her visit and vigil. Seeing me alone in Tahiti, and kind-hearted, she said, she had thought to tell me of the Tahitian heart and the old ways of the land. She had robed, perfumed, and adorned herself, and entered my sleeping-place, as she said was the wont of Tahitian girls. I had certainly heard her en-ter, and seen her kneel to await my greeting, and if not then, I had seen her plainly when I lifted the lamp, for the light had streamed full upon her. She had remained there upon the floor half an hour until my audible breathing had compelled her to believe against her will that I was asleep. Then she had fled and wept the night in humiliation. Never in her young life had such a horror afflicted her.
I was stunned, and could only reiterate that I had not known of her presence, and with a trinket from my pocket I dried her tears.
Rupert Brooke in a letter to a friend in England drew a little etching of our lodging:
I am in a hovel at the back of my hotel, and contemplate the yard. The extraordinary life of the place flows round and near my roomfor here no one, man or woman, scruples to come through one’s room at any moment, if it happens to be a short-cut. By day nothing much happens in the yardexcept when a horse tried to eat a hen, the other afternoon. But by night, after ten, it is filled with flitting figures of girls, with wreaths of white flowers, keeping assignations. . . . It is allall Papeetelike a Renaissance Italy with the venom taken out, No, simpler, light-come and light-go, passionate and forgetful, like children, and all the time South Pacific, that is to say unmalicious and good-tempered.
When a steamship was in port the Tiare was a hurly-burly. Perhaps forty or even a hundred extra patrons came for meals or drinks. It was amusing to hear their uncomprehending anger at their failure to obtain quick service or even a smile by their accustomed manner to-ward dark peoples. The British, who were the majority of the travelers, have a cold, autocratic attitude toward all who wait upon them, but especially toward those of the colored races. In Tahiti they suffered utter dismay, because Tahitians know no servitude and pay no attention to sharp words.
I saw a red-faced woman giving an order for aperitifs to To Sen, the Chinese waiter.
“Two old-fashioned gin cocktails,” she iterated. “You savee, gin and bitters? Be sure it ‘s Angostura, and lemon and soda, and two Manhattans with rye whisky. Hurry along now ! Old-fashioned, remember!”
In ten minutes Temanu came for the order. To Sen knew no English, and Temanu only, “Yais, ma darleeng,” and “Whatnahell?”
“Spik Furanche?” she begged.
“Oui, oui!” said the red-faced lady. “Dooze cocktail! Vous savez cocktail, a la mode des ancients? Gin, oon dash bittair, lem’ et soda !”
“Mais, madame, douze cocktail!” and the half-caste Chinese girl held up all her fingers and added two more. “Vows n’etes que quatre ici! Quatre cocktails, n’est-ce pas?”
“Dooze gin, dooze Manhattan? My heavens! They ought to understand my French in this out-of-the-way place when they do in Paris. Listen! Dooze is two in French,” and she held up two pudgy fingers. But Temanu was gone and returned with four cocktails made after her own liking.
All the girls, Atupu, Iromea, Pepe, Maru, Tetua, and Mme. Rose and Mama-Maru, helped in the service, some beginning with shoes and stockings, but soon slip-ping them off as the crowd grew and their feet became weary. Lovaina herself moved happily about the salle-manger telling her friends that she was a grandmother. A letter had given the information that her daughter had a child. She was a doting parent, and we all must toast the newborn. Two grave professors of the University of California, ichthyologists or entomologists, sat entranced at the unconventionality of the scene, drinking yin ordinaire and gazing at the Tahitian girls, or eating breadfruit, raw fish, and taro, as if they were on Mars and did not know how they got there.
I saw an entry in Lovaina’s day-book on the table : “Germani to Fany feathers.”
This was a charge made by Atupu against a Dane for three cocktails. He took his meals at Mme. Klopfer’s restaurant. Her first name is Fanny, and Atupu thinks all men not English, French, or Americans, are Germans; so she identified the Dane as the German who went to Fanny’s for his meals.
Lovaina said to me :
“I hear you look one house that maybe you rent. You don’t get wise if you rent from that French woman. I don’t say nothing about her, but you know her tongue? So sharp jus’ like knife. All time she have trouble. Can’t rent her house so sharp. Some artist he rent; she take box, peep over see what he do jus’ because he have some girl. Nobody talk her down. No, I take back. Jus’ one French woman who know to swear turribil. This swear woman she call her turribil name and say, `Everybody don’t know you was convict in Noumea for killing one man for money.’ That turribil talk, and she jus’ fell down. Good for her, I think.”
Lovaina seldom rode in her automobile, which she kept primarily for renting to guests for country tours. She had had for years a carriage, a surrey, drawn by one horse, which had grown old and rickety with the vehicle. The driver was a mute, Vava, his name meaning dumb in Tahitian, and the English and Americans called him the Dummy. He was attached to Lovaina as a child to his mothera wayward, jealous, cloudy-minded child, who almost daily broke into fits of anger over incidents misunderstood by his groping mentality, and because of his incommunicable feelings. The hotel was in a fearsome uproar when Vava fell into a tantrum, women patrons afraid of his possible actions and men threatening to club him into a mild frame of mind. I doubt if any one there could have subdued him physically, for he was a thick-bodied man in his thirties, with a stamina and a strength incredibly developed. I had seen him once lift over a fence a barrel of flour, two hundred pounds in weight, and without full effort. His skin was very dark, his facial expression one of ire and frustration, but of conscious superiority to all about him. He had had no aids to overcome his natal infirmity of deafness and consequent dumbness, none of the educational assistance modern science lends these unfortunates, no finger alphabet, or even another inarticulate for sympathy. He was like the mutes of history, of courts and romances, condemned to suffer in silence the humor and contempt of all about him, though he felt himself better than they in body and in the understanding of things, which he could not make them know. This repression made him often like a wild beast, though mostly he was half-clown and half-infant in his conduct. He had a gift of mimicry incomparably finer than any professional’s I knew of. This, with his gestures, stood him instead of speech. A certain haughty English woman whose elaborate hats in an island where women were hatless, or wore simple, native weaves, were noted atrocities, and whose chin was almost nil, kept the carriage and me waiting for breakfast while she primped in her lodging. The Dummy uttered one of his abortive sounds, much like that of an angry puma, contorted his face, and put his hand above his head, so that I had a very vivid suggestion of the lady, her sloping chin and her hat, at which all Papeete laughed. Vava’s gesticulations and grimaces were unerring cartoons without paper or ink. If one could have seen him draw oneself, one’s pride would have tumbled. He saw the most ridiculous aspect of one. His indication of Lovaina’s figure made one shriek, and the governor would have sentenced him for lese-majesty had he seen himself taken off. The sounds he made in which he greeted any one he liked, or in anger, were terrible, dismaying. They must have been those made by our ancestors, the first primates, when they began the struggle toward intelligent language. Vava’s sounds were as the muttering of an ape, deep in his throat, or, when he was roused, high and shrill, like the cry of a rabbit when the hound seizes it. He could make Lovaina know anything he wanted to, and she could direct him to do anything she wished. In that house of mirth, brightness, and laughter, he was as, a cunning and, at times, hateful jester, feared by the Tahitians, and, indeed, to whites a shadowy skeleton at the feast, a thing of indescribable possibilities. I knew him, he liked me, and I drew from him by motions and expressions some measure of his feelings and sufferings. But I, too, occasionally, shuddered at the animal cries and frightful grimaces wrung from him in beating down his soul bent on murder.
Lovaina was a spendthrift, giving money liberally to relatives, lending it to improvident borrowers, and dispensing it with open hands when she had it, though al-ways herself in debt. Yet she liked to make money, and to have her hotel filled with tourists who patronized her little bar or drank at meals other wines than the excellent Bordeaux, white or red, which was free with food. Most she loved the appearance of prosperity, the crowding of casual voyagers on steamer-days, the visit of war-ships, the sound of music in her parlor, the rustling of dancers, and the laughter and excitement when the maids were busied carrying champagne and cheaper drinks to the verandas.
I saw her at her best when El Presidente Sarmiento, an Argentine training-ship, came to port with a hundred cadets. A madness then possessed the girls of Tahiti.
Forsaking their old loves or those of the moment, they threw themselves into the arms of the visitors, determined on conquest. The quays where the launches of the Sarmiento landed their passengers, and the streets about the saloons, restaurants, and theaters, were thronged with the fairest and gayest girls of the island. They poured in from the country to share in the love-making. The cafes were filled with dancing and singing crowds, the volatile Argentineans matching the Tahitians in abandon and ardor.
Accordions, violins, guitars, and mandolins were played everywhere. The scores of public automobiles were engaged by joyous parties who sallied to the rural resorts, each Juan with his vahine. Mostly unable to exchange a word, they were kissing and embracing in their seats. The ship had been there a year before, and many of the men were hunting former sweethearts. They found that very difficult, as they had not accurate descriptions.
“A beauty named Atupu,” or “A black-eyed girl?” They had no aid among the girls they interrogated.
“Why bother with some one who may be dead when we are here?” they asked. And Juan listened to the sirens and rested content.
At Lovaina’s there were seventy to dinner. Captain and officers were cheek by jowl with gunners and plain sailors. The veranda was jammed with tables, corks hitting the ceiling, glasses clinking, and Spanish, French, English, and Tahitian confused in the chatter and the shouts of To Sen, Hon Son, the maids, and a dozen friends of the hostess who always came at such times to share the glory of the service.
Lovaina was at the serving-table with volunteers cutting cakes and taking the money. The parlor, with its red and blue plush chairs, was filled with Argentineans playing the piano and singing songs of their country. Suddenly Lovaina discovered that some one had stolen the album of portraits from the piano-top. These were of her family, and of notable visitors who had written grateful notes after their return home, and sent their pictures to her. Professor Hart, teacher of English aboard the Sarmiento, was asked to find the thief, and he promised that he would have the ship searched.
Lovaina lamented her loss, but counted her sovereigns. The Argentineans had English gold, and Lovaina passed the shining, new pieces from one hand to the other, enjoying their glitter and sound. She liked to play with coins, and often amused herself as did the king in the blackbird-pie melody.
“My God!” said Lovaina, as she pulled me down to her bench and rubbed my back, “that Argentina is good country! Forty dollars lime squash by himself.” She opened her purse, and poured out more gold. With it fell a cloth medallion, red letters on white flannel, “The Apostleship of Prayer in League with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
“I find that on the floor two day”go,” said Lovaina, “and I put it in purse to see if good luck. What you think? Argentinas come in nex’ day. I don’ know,but that thing is good to me. See those bottle’ champagne goin in?”
Perhaps I shall carry longer than any other memory of Tahiti that of the endearing nature, the honest heart, and the laughing, starry eyes of Lovaina, with a tiara blossom over her ear, or a chaplet of those flowers upon her head, as she sat on her throne behind the serving-table, and I on the camphor-wood chest.