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When they had gone and we had finished lunch, the conversation turned to native medicine. I told him of an experience of my own, when I was down with an attack of old malaria — a souvenir of Vera Cruz. (The Anopheles mosquito, by the way, which carries the germs of malaria, does not thrive in the islands of the eastern Pacific, though his cousin Stegomia trails ominous striped legs under one's nose at all hours of the day, and makes one shudder at the thought of a carrier of yellow fever arriving by chance in Polynesia.) At the height of my illness, actuated by curiosity more than anything else, I called in a Tahitian doctor of the half-baked modern school. Perhaps I do the old lady an injustice — for my doctor was elderly and feminine; at any rate, I recovered, and can vouch for the potency of her raau, which may or may not have had a beneficial effect.
Ushered in reverently by an attendant, she squatted on the verandah beside where I lay, and regarded me for a time with shrewd black eyes, set in a face of wrinkled brown. Perhaps she was merely shy; perhaps she doubted the sincerity of a white man willing to pin his faith on native medicine. At last she seemed satisfied and asked me rapidly — and rather competently, I thought — a list of diagnostic questions. It did not take her long to decide on the needful febrifuge; within five minutes she had summoned three girls of the household and dispatched them in search of her primitive drugs. One was to gather a coarse grass found along the edge of the lagoon; another was ordered to grate the meat and express the cream of half-a-dozen cocoanuts; the third set out for the reef in a canoe, to search for a variety of sea-urchin called fetue. All this sounded ominous enough to me; I began to regret the curiosity which leads one into scrapes, but it was too late to think of retreat.
Before the tahua took her leave, she suggested the frequent drinking of an infusion of orange leaves, and informed me that the real cure could not begin for another day, as the brewing of my medicine required twenty-four hours.
I awoke next morning with the vague premonitory depression familiar to all of us—an overflow from the subconscious, independent of positive memory. What was it that made disagreeable the prospect of the coming day. — Ah, yes, the sea-urchins! Toward nine o'clock the doctor appeared. The cure began with a bath from head to heels in a dark tincture of the grass gathered the day before; and after the bath my sore bones were treated to an hour of massage. In this branch of their art, at least, I can affirm the competence of the native doctors. The bath and massage were calculated to pave the way for the final coup-de-grdce — almost as deadly as the poniard-thrust between the joints of a mediaeval gorget. It came in the form of a half-pint tumbler, filled with a viscous whitish liquid. I do not know all its ingredients, or how they were compounded, but the boileddown power of strange substances was in it, and it tasted worse than it looked.
'Some people,' remarked my doctor, gazing admiringly at her handiwork in the glass held out to me, 'cannot take this medicine — it is too strong. But it will cure your fever!'
This was no time to hesitate — I seized the glass and gulped down its evil contents. An hour later I began to understand why some people could not take it, and decided that I must be one of them. The tahua had not exaggerated when she said that it was strong. Keats might have had its effects in mind when he wrote: —
My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk
As the day dragged on, it became increasingly evident that I had been indiscreet. I thought again of the doctor's words, and I recalled — not without uneasiness — a passage in an old missionary chronicle of life in these same islands: 'Many of their applications, however, were powerful. ... A preparation, in which milk from the pulp of the cocoanut formed a principal ingredient, was sometimes followed by almost instant death. Mr. Barff once took this preparation, at the earnest recommendation of the people; but it nearly cost him his life, although he had not drunk more than half the quantity prepared.'
A sinister thought, especially since I had swallowed the whole dose, one half of which had nearly caused the death of the acquiescent Mr. Barff! Toward evening, when I was long past the stage of being able to smile at my predicament, I fell asleep — if sinking unpleasantly into a loss of consciousness may be described in words so peaceful. I awoke at dawn, weak and giddy, but better than I had been for several days. Perhaps the raau cured me. I only know that my curiosity is satisfied — I shall never dabble in native remedies again.
'You are probably right,' remarked my friend, smiling at the announcement of this decision; 'the last of the old-fashioned native doctors — who really knew something — is dead. His name was Tiurai; I met him when I visited Tahiti before the war, and one cannot doubt that he did, at times, accomplish remarkable results. There is so much humbug involved in all native medicine that it is difficult to distinguish genuine skill from quackery; but while old Tiurai used all the frills of his art, he certainly possessed a considerable knowledge of anatomy and an acquaintance with the virtues of many kinds of herbs. He never took a fee. During the last decade of his life he was too busy to travel about; people came
Vol. its — No. 4 c
to him from all parts of Tahiti, from Moorea and the Leeward group, and even from distant islands of the Paumotu. Some of his cures were too absurdly simple to seem real. I ran across an Englishman, when I was here before, who had suffered for months from an abscess of the leg — one of those hateful things which seem to heal from time to time, only to break out again, deeper and more malignant than before. When the sufferer had reached the point of arranging a trip to New Zealand, someone persuaded him to let Tiurai have a go at it. Skeptical, but ready to try anything in his extremity, the Englishman drove out to the district where the native doctor lived. A dozen carts were drawn up before the house, and groups of people, w ith the solemn air of mourners at a death-bed, sat under the trees awaiting their interviews. When the abscess was shown to Tiurai, he gave it only a casual glance and said that he would send medicine the next day.
'In the morning a boy appeared with the remedy: a small bottle of what seemed to be ordinary monoi — cocoanut-oil, scented with the blossoms of the Tahitian gardenia. The patient was instructed to obtain the scarlet tailfeather of a tropic bird, dip it in the oil, and draw a circle around the abscess — at sunrise, at noon, and at sunset. This sounds ridiculous enough, but for some reason the bad leg began to improve at once and was healed within a few days.
'Over certain organs of the body — notably the heart and kidneys — the remedies of Tiurai possessed a remarkable control; it is a pity that some European doctor did not pain the old man's confidence and persuade him to impart the more important of his secrets. He died in the epidemic of 1918 — the last of a lon<* line of tahuas. His loss was a heavy one to the island; as an obstetrician alone he was of immense value, with his curious system of massage, which seemed to rob child-birth of nearly all its suffering. The fact that no others sprang up to take his place proves that Tiurai possessed unusual powers. There is a doctor practising at Paea and another at Haapape, but the natives have little confidence in them and consult them only in trifling cases. This does not apply, of course, to the professional exorcists, who form a distinct class. You will find them in nearly every village — the trusted exponents of an ancient art.'
The modern exorcists, to whom my host alluded, are descendants of the heathen Faatere, employed in the old days by friends of the demon-ridden, to drive out the evil spirit invoked by a sorcerer. European witnesses of the agony and death of those upon whom the destroying spirits preyed were forced to confess that powers beyond their comprehension were at work. Even the hard-headed missionaries admitted this. One of the most distinguished of them, writing of Tahiti nearly a century ago, observed: 'It is not necessary now to inquire whether satanic agency affects the bodies of men. We know this was the fact at the time our Saviour appeared on earth. Many of the natives of these islands are firmly persuaded that, while they were idolaters, their bodies were subject to most excruciating sufferings from the direct operation of satanic power . . . and . . . some of the early missionaries are disposed to think this was the fact.'
There are still on Tahiti one or two old men considered capable of dire necromancy, but the belief is dying fast, and nowadays it is the spirit of an ancestor — naturally malicious, or offended by some misdeed — which harries the human victim. I saw a case of this
sort only a few weeks ago. In the house where I was stopping there was a young girl who did the family washing and ironing—a gentle, good-natured youngster of sixteen. I was reading on the verandah, one evening after dinner, and noticed this girl near-by, gazing out over the sea in the detached and dreamy manner of her race. Suddenly I heard her give a low cry, and, glancing up from my book, I saw that she was cowering with an air of fear, arms raised and bent as if to ward off invisible blows. When I reached her, a moment later, she had collapsed in a faint; I remember the awkwardness of carrying her limp body to a couch. I felt her pulse, and it seemed to me that her heart was barely stirring. Then, screaming terribly, and with a suddenness that was uncanny, she sat up. I had noticed that she was a rather pretty girl, with tender lips and soft dark eyes; now her lips were distorted in a snarl and flecked with a light froth, while her eyes, fixed and open to the fullest extent, shone with a dull red glare. She sprang to her feet with an air of horrid desperation. The next moment three of us seized her. While we took good care to do her no harm, she was not in the least afraid of hurting us, and flung us about as if we were children; it seemed to me that there was something monstrous in the strength and ferocity of her struggles.
In the midst of the scuffle, an elderly man appeared on the verandah — a spirit-doctor of some local reputation, who took in the situation at a glance.
'Tell me quickly,' he said, 'where I can find a bottle of perfume — strong perfume.'
I told him there was cologne on the dressing-table in my room, and in an instant he had a towel soaked in the stuff, waving it about the frantic girl's head. Perhaps the fit had run its course; for she ceased at once to struggle, and sank down on the floor, quiet and limp.
Someone had run to fetch the European doctor, and when he arrived the girl had recovered consciousness. He sat down beside her, to ask questions in a low voice. By the troubled look in her eyes I could see that she understood; but though she seemed to make an effort to speak, no sound came from her lips. Presently he rose. 'It is a sort of epilepsy,' he informed us;'though from what you say the attack must have been more than usually violent. Pauvre enfant — there is no cure.'
When he had gone the girl spoke. Her story may have been pure imagination, or the memory of a singular and vivid dream; in the eyes of the natives, of course, it was terrifying, but neither incredible nor strange.
'I was resting after my work,' she said, 'watching the little clouds above the sea. All at once I saw an old woman standing before me. She carried a staff of black wood in her hand; her gray hair hung tangled about her shoulders; she gazed at me without smiling, and I was greatly afraid. I knew her at once for my grandmother, who died when I was a child. Then she raised her staff and began to beat me, and I put up my arms to ward off the blows. After that, I felt myself dying. When I awoke on the couch, she was standing beside me, and as I opened my eyes I saw her raise her club. Of the rest I know nothing, except that, when the doctor questioned me, I could not answer, for the hand of that woman was on my lips.'
'The tupapau' remarked Mahine, the spirit-doctor, when the girl had been put to bed, 'cannot abide perfume; it will drive off the most dangerous of them. But though she pretends innocence, I know that girl has done an ill thing, to incur the anger of her grandmother.'
In justice to the spirit-world, I must add that Mahine was not mistaken. It was discovered afterward that the
girl had acquired a lover and was concealing from her family the fact of an impending motherhood.
There is a good deal of misapprehension in regard to the native code of morality, which most white men dismiss with the statement that no such thing exists. In reality, the discovery that this child was involved in an intrigue was something of a shock to the native mind, for she was supposedly one of the chaste girls of whom every village possesses a few — carefully guarded, and objects of considerable local pride. Chastity is, I believe, and always has been, in Polynesia, a virtue as highly prized as it is rare, though we are apt to lose sight of the fact, because the woman who cannot boast of it is neither shunned nor scorned.
Native morals — or rather the lack of them — are responsible for the advent of a regrettably large proportion of visitors to the islands. This is simple truth. The credulous and shoddy voluptuary — in England, America, or France
— chances on one of the South Sea books in vogue, to feast his mind on a text spiced with innuendo, and his eyes on portraits of brown ladies whose charms are trammeled only by the sketchiest of attire. After that, if circumstances permit, he is not unlikely to board a steamer for the islands; but a month or two later you will find him even more eager to return, for the reality of his tawdry dream does not exist
— the women within his reach are, if possible, less interesting than their sisters of Leicester Square, or Sixth Avenue, or the llulti.
In general the white men of the islands are there for one of four reasons: work, drink, women, or a murky past. But generalities are proverbially deceptive, and a man like my friend the American recluse, who chooses to live on Tahiti — decently and wholesomely as he would live at home, — because he likes the island and its people, is a perpetual aggravation to gossip. And he minds his own business — here, as elsewhere, an unpardonable sin.
Gossip — the occupation of the provincial and the dull — makes no allowance for variations from type; yet one must remember that the European who does not run to type is the only one fitted to make a success of life in the islands — far out of the white man's natural range. Consider again, for a moment, the case of my friend. He has an income, and his doctoring gives him an occupation; the first is a help, the second an indispensable accessory to content. He has eyes for the beautiful and imagination for the strange; in order to live as he chooses, he is willing to sacrifice what most of us would never in the world give up. Like the cobbler in quest of happiness on Rapa Iti, he is one of the very rare men who possess resources within themselves, who are able to get enjoyment from their own minds, and are not dependent on others for diversion from dull and paltry thoughts. The only white man in a remote native community, he lives with the Polynesian on such terms of intimacy as few Europeans could endure. Their confidence is his reward; and because they are always welcome at his house, where there is a phonograph and an inexhaustible supply of cigarettes, the natives do many things for him — favors he accepts as gracefully as they are tendered. Breadfruit, bananas, and taro are brought to his door in greater quantities than he can use; when the men of the village return from the reef, to divide their fish, his portion is not forgotten. The fame of his idyllic life has spread abroad, and I wonder sometimes if, in the end, he will not be forced to seek tranquillity in places even more remote.
On one occasion a little band of wanderers, elderly and unattached
white women from the basin of the Mississippi, — devout readers of Gauguin and White Shadows in the South Seas, — journeyed happily to his retreat and gave him an anxious week. 'Poor fellow,' they said, 'living out there all alone; he must be nice — everyone says he is so kind to the dear natives. We can just as well stop there as in Papeete, and the sight of a white face will do him good.'
They were counting apparently, on a visit of indefinite duration, and he put in some agonizing days before his goodnature gave way at last.
'If you will reflect,' he suggested to his uninvited guests, 'it will become evident that I did not leave New York because I felt lonely there. As for white faces, I can always go to Papeete if I want to gaze at them — a need I have not felt so far.'
To most of us, in the same circumstances, the sight of white faces would be welcome — even the forbiddingly earnest countenances of aesthetic females: thin-lipped, leathery, and garnished with black-rimmed goggles. We do not vary from the type — and the type is better off at home. A good many men and women who come from the lands of the white man to seek an elusive dolce far niente in Polynesia are discovering this profound truth for themselves.
The South Seas are no less blue than when the ships of Cook traversed them, and the people of the islands, though dying fast, are perhaps not greatly changed. The palms still rustle soothingly as in the days of Melville's enchanted vision; the same trade-wind blows, and lonely lagoons still ripple under the stars. But the islands are not for people of our race — I say it, though I set at naught an old illusion. They may be places to visit once; but these are lands in which few white men linger, and to which fewer still return.