CHAPTER XI THE FORGOTTEN ISLES
THERE can be no doubt about it: real cannibal kings are getting scarce. Ever since, as a youngster, I read of Du Chaillu's adventures among the man-eating natives of Equatoria, I had hankered to see a real live cannibal in the flesh. But when, in later years, I made inquiries about them from missionaries and traders and officials in Senegal and Uganda and Nyasaland, I invariably received the reply: “Oh, that's all over now; except among a few of the West Coast tribes, cannibalism is a thing of the past.” So when the captain of the little German cargo boat on which I was loitering up and down Africa's Indian seaboard remarked at breakfast one morning that he had decided to put in to Mah, in the Seychelle group, and that I might care to pass the time while he was taking on cargo by visiting the colony of cannibal royalties who were in exile there, I felt that one of my boyhood dreams was to be realised at last.
Do you happen, by any chance, to have been to Mah, in the Seychelles? No? Of course not. Then you must picture an emerald island dropped down in a turquoise sea. Peacock-coloured waves ripple on a silver strand, and this loses itself almost immediately in a dense forest of giant palms, which, mounting leisurely, [Pg 249] dwindles and straggles and runs out in a peak of bare blue rock, which disappears, in turn, behind a great, low-hanging, purple heat cloud. To reach these delectable isles one must have time and patience a-plenty, for they lie far from the ocean highways and are visited by scarcely a dozen vessels, all told, each year. Draw a line straight across the Indian Ocean from Colombo to Zanzibar, and where that line intersects the equator are the Seychelles, mere specks in that expanse of ocean. Mah, the largest of the group, is everything that a tropical island should be, according to the story-books, even to its inaccessibility, for, barring the French mail steamer which touches there every other month on its way to Madagascar, and an occasional German freighter or British tramp which drops in on its way from Goa to Kilindini, on the chance of picking up a cargo of copra, it is as completely cut off from the outside world as though it were in Mars.
I rather imagine that they are the loneliest people in the world, those score of men and womenEnglish, French, and Germanwho constitute the entire white population of the islands. That is why they are so pathetically eager to welcome the rare visitors who come their way. Indeed, until I went to Mah I never knew what hospitality really meant. When our anchor rumbled down under the shadow of the Morne Seychellois, and the police boatits crew of negroes, with their flashing teeth and big, good-humoured faces, their trim, blue sailor suits and broad-brimmed straw wide-awakes, looking like overgrown childrenhad [Pg 250] taken me ashore, I promptly found myself surrounded by the entire European population.
“I am the wife of the legal adviser to the Crown,” said a sweet-faced little Irishwoman. “My husband and I would be so pleased if you would come up to our bungalow for dinner. You can have no idea how good it seems to see a white face again.”
“Oh, I say, then you must promise to breakfast with me,” urged a tall young Englishman in immaculate white linen, who, it proved, was the superior judge of the colony. “You won't disappoint me, will you, old chap? I'm dying to hear what's going on in the world. And if you should have any magazines or newspapers that you could spare”
But the government chaplain, wasting no time in words, fairly hustled me into a diminutive dog-cart and, amid the reproaches of his fellow-exiles, off we rattled behind the only horse on the island. The padre was not to monopolise me for long, however, for the little group of homesick exiles pursued us to his bungalow, where they settled me in a long cane chair, thrust upon me cheroots and whiskey-and-sodas, and listened breathlessly to the bits of world gossip for which I ransacked the pigeon-holes of my memory for their benefit. The newest songs, the most recent plays, the latest fashions, all the gossip of Broadway and Oxford Street and the Avenue de l'Oprathey hung on my words with an eagerness that was pathetic.
“I hope you'll pardon us,” apologised my host, “but it's so seldom that we see a pukka white man out [Pg 251] here that we quite forget the few manners we have left in our eagerness to learn what is going on at homethe little things, you know, that are not important enough to put in the cables and that they never think to put in the letters. Until you have lived in such a place as this, my friend, you don't know the meaning of that word 'home.'”
It is hot in the Seychelles; hot with a damp, sticky, humid, enervating heat which is unknown away from the Line. They tell a story in Mah of an English resident who died from fever and went to the lower regions. A few days later his friends received a message from the departed. It said, “Please send down my blankets.” There are days in an American midsummer when indoors becomes oppressive; it is always oppressive in the Seychelles, in January as in August, at midnight as at noon. During the “hot season” it is overpoweringly so, for you live for six months at a stretch in a bath of perspiration and wonder whether you will ever know what it is to be cool again. “There are six hundred minutes in every hour of the hot weather,” the governor's wife remarked to me, “and not one of them bearable. Although,” she added, “after the mercury in your bedroom thermometer has climbed above one hundred and thirty, a few more degrees don't much matter.” In her bungalow, for the greater part of the day, the white woman in the Seychelles is as much a prisoner by reason of the heat as is a Turkish woman in a harem from custom. Having neither shopping, domestic duties, nor callers to occupy her, the only break in the day's [Pg 252] terrible monotony comes at sunset, when every one meets every one else at the little club on the water-front which, with its breeze-swept verandas and its green croquet lawns and tennis courts, is the universal gathering-place between the hours of six and eight. An afternoon nap is universalif the flies will allow it. Flies by day and mosquitoes by night are as wearing on European nerves as the climate, the beds being from necessity so smothered in mosquito netting that the air that gets within is as unsatisfactory as strained milk. In the hot weather a punkah is kept going all nightthis huge, swinging fan, pulled by a coolie who squats in the veranda outside, and who can go to sleep without ceasing his pulling, being as necessary for comfort as a pillowwhile, during the hottest nights, it is customary to sleep unclad and uncovered, save for a sheet, which the punkah-coolie, slipping in every hour, sprinkles with water.
The white woman in this part of the world is an early riser. A cup of tea is always served her when she is awakened, and as soon as she is dressed comes chota hazri, or the little breakfast, consisting of tea, toast, eggs, and fruit. The most is made of the cool hours of the morning, for in the hot weather it is customary to “shut up the bungalow” at about seven A. M., when the temperature is moderately low compared with what it will rise to a few hours later. Every door and window is closed and thereafter the greatest care is taken to make entrances and exits as quickly as possible, for a door left open for any length of time quickly [Pg 253] raises the temperature. If kept carefully closed, however, it is remarkable how cool the room keeps as compared with the stifling heat without.
Though a Seychellian bungalow is generally barn-like without and barren within, its European mistress usually contrives to make its rooms pretty and inviting, it being astonishing what marvels of transformation can be accomplished by means of native mattings, Indian printed curtains, and furniture of Chinese wicker, all effective and ridiculously cheap. The kitchen is a detached building, erected as far away from the bungalow as possible, and the white woman who knows when she is well off seldom enters it. Once a month, however, she inspects her cooking pots and pans, because, being made of copper, they have to be periodically tinned or they become poisonous, almost as many lives being lost in the tropics by the neglect of this simple precaution as by failure to have every drop of drinking water boiled. As there is no ice-making plant in the Seychelles, water is cooled for drinking by being placed in a porous earthenware vessel and swung to and fro in the heated atmosphere until, though still far from cool, it is a little less tepid and nauseous.
But the European residents are not the only exiles in the Seychelles, nor, to my way of thinking, the ones most to be pitied, for of recent years these islands, presumably because of their very remoteness, have been turned into a political prison for those deposed cannibal kings whose kingdoms have, on one excuse and another, been added to the dominions of the British Crown. [Pg 254] At present there are three political prisoners of note on the island of MahKing Kabanga of Uganda, King Assibi of the Gold Coast, and King Prempeh of Ashantee. Though all of these ebony royalties were enthusiastic patrons of the cooking-pot, King Prempeh is by far the most notorious and the most interesting personality of the three, for it was his palace at Kumasi that was built of the skulls and surrounded by a neat picket fence made from the leg and arm bones of the people he and his tribesmen had eaten. Hard by the palace was the ghastly “crucifixion grove” where the victims were slaughtered and their bodies hung until sufficiently gamy to suit the royal palate. Owing to an error of judgment in selecting a British commissioner as the pice de rsistance for one of his feasts, an expedition was sent to Ashantee, the country annexed to the British empire, and its ruler forced to exchange his skull-walled palace in Kumasi for a four-roomed, tin-roofed cottage in the outskirts of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, where, surrounded by the huts of the chieftains who accompanied him into exile, he lives on the meagre pension granted him by the British Government.
Clad in the flaming cotton robe of red and yellow which is the West African equivalent of royal ermine, worn over a pair of very soiled pajamas, his Majesty received me on the veranda of his little dwelling in the presence of the constable who guards him and who acts as interpreter when the King's scanty store of English gives out. Now I am not an entire stranger to the ways of the Lord's Anointed, but this audience with Prempeh [Pg 255] of Ashantee was one of the most memorable experiences that I can recall. In the first place, the mercury had crept up and up and up until it hovered in the neighbourhood of one hundred and thirty degrees in the shade of the house; in the second place, the sons of the King (he told me that he had forty-two in all) had crowded into the tiny room until the place fairly reeked with the smell of perspiration; in the third place, I was at a loss what to talk to his Majesty about. The questions which one would like to ask a cannibal king are obviouswhether he takes his meat rare or well done, whether he prefers the tenderloin or the sirloin, whether he likes white meat better than blackbut Prempeh of Ashantee is not at all the sort of person with whom one would feel inclined to take liberties, and I was very far from being sure whether he would consider such questions as liberties or not. After an awkward pause, during which the King shuffled his feet uneasily and I wiped away rivulets of perspiration, he said something in Ashanteeat least I suppose it was Ashanteeto one of his attendants, who shortly returned with a tin tray holding a bottle of whiskey, a siphon of lukewarm seltzer, and a couple of very dirty glasses. After another long and uncomfortable pause, the King asked me if I wouldn't have something to drink. Taking it for granted that Prempeh's capacity for drink would be as outr as his choice of food, I poured his beer glass full to the brim with whiskey, giving to myself the drink sanctioned by civilised custom.
“In my country,” said the King, leaning forward [Pg 256] and speaking in the broken English which he had acquired from the government chaplain, “bad men sometimes try to poison king, so king turn drinks other way round,” and, suiting the action to the words, he turned the tray so as to place before me the beer-glassful of whiskey. I have never been quite certain whether there was a twinkle in the eye of that simple-hearted cannibal when he literally turned the table on me or not.
At the time of my visit to Prempeh he was in the throes of marital unhappiness, the details of which he confided to me. It seems that for several years past he had been endeavouring to gain admission to the Church-of-England fold, arguing, plausibly enough, that such a proof of his complete regeneration might result in inducing the British Government to send him back to his home in Ashantee. Working on that assumption, he had, not long before, asked the government chaplain to confirm him, to which request that gratified but still somewhat sceptical clergyman had replied: “I am sorry to say that what your Majesty asks is at present impossible, as your Majesty's marital affairs are not pleasing to the church.”
So Prempeh, who had brought only twelve of his wives with him into exile, thinking that the church held such a number to be incompatible with his dignity,for the workings of the West African mind are peculiar, remember,sent a message to the governor of the Seychelles asking permission to take a maiden of Mah for his thirteenth spouse, and it was not until the indignant chaplain remonstrated with him for his fall from grace [Pg 257] that he grasped the fact that Christianity demands of its converts the minimum instead of the maximum number of wives.
“So me ship three wives back Africa,” Prempeh explained to me in his quaint West Coast English. “Now me have only nine. Nine wives not many for great king. But if chappy [chaplain] not let me in church with nine wives, then me ship them back Africa too, for me very much homesick to see Ashantee.”
Poor, deposed, exiled, homesick king, he will never again see that African home for which he longs, I fear, for he cost England far too much in lives and money. He came out on the veranda of his little house to say good-by, and as I looked back, as my 'rickshaw boy drew me swiftly down the road, he was still standing there waving to mea real, dyed-in-the-wool cannibal king, who has killed and eaten more human beings, I suppose, than almost any man that ever lived.
Two days' steam southward from the Seychelles, and midway between the island of Mah and Digo-Suarez, on the north coast of Madagascar, lies the islet of Saint Pierre, whence comes much of the guano with which we fertilise our flower-beds and gardens, and those giant sea-turtles whose shells supply our women-folk with fans, combs, and brooches. Here, on this half a square mile of sun-baked rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Scotch manager of the syndicate which works the guano deposits lives the whole year round, during half of which time he sees no human face, [Pg 258] during the other half having the company of a few score blacks who are brought over from Mah under contract to gather the rich deposits of guano. His only shelter a wooden shack, his only companions the clouds of clamorous sea-fowl, his only fresh food turtles and fish, his only communication with the world two times a year when the workers come and go, I expected to find him unshaven and slovenly, the most exiled of all exiles, the loneliest of the lonely. I made up a bundle of two-months-old newspapers and pictured the pleasure it would give him to learn the news of that big, busy, teeming world which lay over there beyond the rim of the Indian Ocean. I imagined that he would cling to my arm and beg piteously for news from home, and I thought it quite possible that he might weep on my shoulder. But when a crew of blacks had taken me through the booming surf in a tiny native dugout, and I and my bundle of newspapers had been hauled up an overhanging cliff at the end of a rope, I found the poor exile whose lonely lot I had come to cheer immaculate in white linen and pipe-clayed shoes and wholly contented with the shade of a green palm, the murmur of a turquoise sea, a book of Robert Burns's verses, and the contents of a large black bottle.
When De Lesseps, that lean Frenchman with the vision of a prophet and the energy of a Parisian, drove his spade through the sands of Suez and thereby shortened the sea-road from Europe to the East by five thousand miles, he gave France her revenge on Saint Helena. [Pg 259] Ever since Clive won England her Indian empire, this obscure rock in the South Atlantic had been a prosperous half-way house on the road to the Farther East, its lonely islanders driving a roaring trade with the winged fleets of war and commerce that stopped there long enough to replenish their larders and refill their casks. But when the completion of the Canal altered the trade routes of the world, the tedious Cape journey was abandoned, the South Atlantic was deserted, and Saint Helena was ruined. By the genius of one of her sons, France had settled her score with that grim island, whose name still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Frenchmen.
He who would see the prison place of the great Emperor for himself must be rich in time and patience, for the vessels that earn their government subsidy by grudgingly dropping anchor for a few hours in Jamestown's open roadstead are only indifferently good and very far between. Scarcely larger than the island of Nantucketor Staten Island, if that conveys more meaning; almost midway between the fever-haunted coasts of Angola and Brazil; sixteen days' steam from Southampton Water and seven from Table Bay; its rockbound coasts as precipitous and forbidding as the walls of the Grand Canyon; and with a population less than that of many of New York's down-town office buildings, Saint Helena possesses one attraction, nevertheless, which more than repaid me for the long and arduous journey. That attraction is a mean and lonely cottage, set on a bleak and barren hill. To stand within [Pg 260] the walls of that wretched dwelling and to stare out across the wastes of ocean from that wind-swept hilltop, I travelled twenty thousand miles, for on that distant stage was played the last act of the mightiest tragedy of modern times.
Loitering up and down the seven seas, I have seen many islands, but none, that I can recall, that turns toward the seafarer a face at once so gloomy and so forbidding. It needs no vivid imagination, no knowledge of its history, to transform the perpendicular cliffs of Saint Helena into the grim walls of a sea-surrounded prison. It is a place so stern, so solemn, and so awesome that it makes you shiver in spite of yourself. As I leaned over the rail of a Castle steamer, with sunrise still an hour away and the Cross flaming overhead, and watched the island's threatening profile loom up out of the night, I shuddered in sympathy with that stern, cold man who came as a prisoner to these same shores close on a century ago.
From the view-points of safety and severity, the captors of the fallen Emperor could not have chosen better. For the safe-keeping of a man whose ambitions had decimated, bankrupted, and exhausted the people of a continent, it was imperative that a prison should be found whence escape or rescue would be out of the question by reason of its very isolation and remoteness. Twelve hundred miles from the nearest continental land, and that a savage and fever-infested wilderness; with but a single harbour, and that so poor that landing there is perilous except in the very best of weather; its [Pg 261] great natural strength increased by impregnable forts; its towering rocks commanding a sea view of sixty miles in every direction, thus obviating the possibility of a surprise attack, Saint Helena admirably fulfilled the requirements for a prison demanded by a harassed, weakened, and frightened Europe.
Though those travellers who take passage by the slow and infrequent “intermediate” steamers to the Cape are usually afforded an opportunity of setting foot on Saint Helena's soil, the brief stay which is made there permits of their doing little else. As the house occupied by Napoleon stands in the very heart of the island and on its highest point, and as the road which leads to it is so rough and precipitous that those who hire one of the few available vehicles generally walk most of the way out of pity for the horses, there is rarely time for the traveller who intends proceeding by the same boat to set eyes on the spot which gives the island its fame. I heard, indeed, of scores of travellers who had chosen the discomforts of this roundabout and tedious route for the express purpose of visiting the house where Napoleon died, and who found, on arriving at Saint Helena, that they would have time for nothing more than a hurried promenade in the town. Nor are any efforts made by the indolent islanders to induce travellers to stay over a steamer, for there are neither hotels nor boarding-houses, and a visitor would have to depend for his bed and board on the hospitality of some private family.
The South Atlantic, her bosom rising and falling [Pg 262] lazily under the languorous influence of the tropic morning, had exchanged her sombre night robe for a shimmering, sparkling garment of sun-flecked blue before the sleepy-eyed quarantine officer had laboriously climbed the port ladder; and the yellow flag at our masthead, fluttering down, had signalled to the clamorous crews of negroes waiting eagerly alongside that they could take us ashore. In the pitiless light of the early morning the island looked even more forbidding than when the harshness of its features was veiled by night. Naked slope and ridge rose everywhere, and everywhere they were cut and cross-cut by equally bare valleys and ravines, but not a house, not a tree, not a sign of life, vegetable or animal, could we detect as we drew near. Even the sea-birds seemed afraid to alight on those grim cliffs, darting in on outspread wings as though to settle on them, only to wheel away with frightened, discordant cries, the while an everlasting surf hurled itself angrily against the smooth black rocks, voicing its impotence in a sullen, booming roar.
Approaching the shore, we were amazed to see that what had appeared from the ship's deck to be a solid, perpendicular wall of rock was split in the middle, as though by a mighty chisel, and in the cleft thus formed nestled Jamestown, the island's capital, flanked on either side by towering, fort-crowned cliffs which effectually conceal it from the sea. Landing at the same stone water-stairs where the captive Emperor had come ashore nearly a century before, we followed a stone-paved causeway, bordered on the land side by a deep [Pg 263] but empty moat, over a creaking drawbridge, through an ancient portcullised gateway, and so into a spacious square, shaded by many patriarchal trees and dotted here and there with groups of antiquated cannon. Bordering the square are the post-office, which does a thriving business in the sale of the rare surcharged stamps of the islands when the steamers come in; the custom-house, the law courts, the yellow church of Saint James, and the castle, a picturesque and straggling structure, begun by the first English governor in 1659, which is used by the governor for his “town” residence, though his “country” place is barely a mile away. The town itself is simply a mean and straggling street, lined on either side by whitewashed, red-roofed, green-shuttered houses which become less and less pretentious and more and more scattered as you make your way up the ever narrowing valley until it loses itself in the hills. If there is a more dead-and-alive place than Jamestown I have yet to see it. A New Hampshire hamlet on a Sunday morning is positively boisterous in comparison. Once a month, however, when the British mail comes in, the town arouses itself long enough to go down to the post-office and get the letters and the papersespecially the illustrated weekliesfrom that far-off place which every islander, even though he was born and raised on Saint Helena, refers to as “home.”
From the very edge of the village square the cliff known as Ladder Hill rises sheer, its great bulk throwing an ominous shadow over the little town. It takes its name from the Jacob's ladder whose seven hundred [Pg 264] wooden steps will bring you, panting and perspiring, to the fort and the wireless station which occupy the top. I suppose there is no other such ladder in the world, it being, so I was proudly assured by the islanders, nine hundred and ninety-three feet long and six hundred and two feet high. Nor can I conceive of any other place wanting such an accommodation, for those who use it are constantly in danger of bursting their lungs going up or of breaking their necks coming down.
A biscuit's throw from the foot of the ladder, and facing the public gardens, stands the sedate, old-fashioned house where Napoleon spent the first few nights after his arrival on the island. It is a prim, two-story residence, the sombreness of its snuff-coloured plaster relieved by white stone trimmings and window-sillsjust such a place, in fact, as the British colonists built by the hundreds in our own New England towns. By one of the most remarkable coincidences of which I have ever heard, Napoleon was given the same bedroom which had been occupied by the Duke of Wellingtonthen Sir Arthur Wellesleyon his homeward voyage from India only a few years before.
Leaving Jamestown in its gloomy, rock-walled ravine, we followed the incredibly rough high-road which bumps and jolts and twists and turns and climbs back and up onto the table-land which forms, as it were, the roof of the island. The deeper we penetrated into the interior the more luxuriant the vegetation became. The dry, barren, soilless, lichen-coated rocks of the coast [Pg 265] zone gave way to grassy valleys abloom with English gorse and broom and dotted with the bright green of willows and the dark green of firs, and these merged, in turn, into a land of bamboos and bananas, of oranges and lemons and date-palms, where the vegetation was so luxuriant and tropical as to give it almost the appearance of a botanic garden. I know, indeed, of no other place in the world where one can pass through three distinct zones of vegetation in the course of an hour's drive, the first few miles into the interior of Saint Helena being, so far as the scenery is concerned, like a journey from the rocky, desolate shores of Labrador, through the pine forests and fertile farm-lands of New England and New York, and so southward into the essentially tropical vegetation of lower Florida.
The road wound on and on, uncovering new beauties at every turn. Cheerful, low-roofed bungalows peeped out at us from gardens ablaze with camelias, fuchsias, and roses; through the vistas formed by fig, pear, and guava orchards we caught glimpses of prosperous-looking stone farm-houses whose thick walls and high gables showed that they dated from the Dutch occupation; passing above a tiny sylvan valley, our driver pointed out the rambling Balcombe place, where the Emperor lived for some weeks while Longwood was being prepared for his occupancy, and in the box-bordered gardens of which he made quiet love to his host's pretty daughter. In the same valley, not a pistol-shot away, are the whitewashed, broad-verandaed quarters of the Eastern Telegraph Orgpany's force of [Pg 266] operatorstennis-courts, cricket-fields, and a swimming-pool set in a lawn of emerald velvet serving to make the enforced exile of these young Englishmen, who relay the news of the world between Europe and the Cape, a not unpleasant one.
Steeper and steeper became the road; scantier and less luxuriant the vegetation, until at last we emerged upon a barren, wind-swept table-land. A farm-yard gate barred our road, but at the impatient crack of the driver's whip a small brown maiden hastened from a near-by lodge to open it, curtseying to us prettily as we rattled through. Three minutes' drive across a desolate, gorse-covered moor, and our driver pulled up sharply at a gate in a scraggy privet hedge surrounding just such a ramshackle, weather-beaten farm-house as you find by the hundreds scattered along the coast of Maine. “Longwood,” he remarked laconically, pointing with his whip. Convinced that I could not have heard aright, I asked him over again, for, despite all the accounts I had read of the mean surroundings amid which the Emperor ended his days, I could not bring myself to believe that this miserable cottage, with its sunken roof and lichen-coated walls, could have sheltered for more than half a decade the conqueror of Europe, the master of the Tuileries and Fontainebleau and Versailles, the man whose troopers had stabled their horses in every capital of the Continent.
Longwood House is an old-fashioned, rambling cottage, only one story high, unless you count the quarters improvised for the members of the Emperor's [Pg 267] suite in the garret, which were lighted by means of small windows cut in the shingle roof. The house is built in the form of a T, the entrance, which is reached by four or five stone steps and a tiny latticed veranda, being represented by the bottom of the letter, while the dining-room, kitchens, and offices are represented by the top. Originally the dwelling of a peasant farmer, at the time Napoleon reached the island it was being used as a sort of shooting-box by the lieutenant-governor, the present front of the house being hastily added to form a reception-room for the Emperor. In addition to this salle de rception, where you are asked to sign the visitor' book by the old French soldier who is the official guardian of the place, there is a drawing-room, a dining-room, the Emperor's study, his bedroom, bath, and dressing-roomall small, ill-lighted, damp, and cheerless. Practically the entire lower floor of the house was used by Napoleon, the members of his entouragemarshals, ministers, and courtiers, remember, who were accustomed to the life of the most brilliant court in Europebeing accommodated in tiny, unventilated cubby-holes directly under the eaves. With the exception of two or three small pier-glasses, the house is now quite destitute of furniture, though in other respects it is kept religiously as it was in Napoleon's time, even the faded blue wall-paper, sprinkled with golden stars, having been carefully preserved. On the walls of the various rooms are notices in French and English indicating the purposes to which they were put during the imperial occupancy. Between two windows [Pg 268] of the reception-room, where the Emperor's bed was removed from his bedroom a few days before his death because of the better light, stands a marble bust made from the cast taken immediately after his death, which, barring the one made by Canova during his life, is the only likeness of Napoleon admittedly correct. Without the house is the small and unkept garden in which the Emperor walked and sometimes worked, the arbour under which he spent so many hours, and the cement-lined fish-pond which he built with his own hands. Inside or out, there is not one suggestion of colour, of comfort, or of cheer: it is a prison-house and nothing more.
Near the bottom of the brown and windy hill on which Longwood stands is Geranium Valley, which contains the tomb, or rather the cenotaph, of the Emperor. It was by Napoleon's own wish that his body was buried in this exquisite spot, close beside the spring at which he so often used to drink and amid the wild geraniums of which he was so fond. The famous willow-tree still overshadows the little grave-space, which is enclosed by a high iron railing and a carefully trimmed hedge of box, while masses of flowers give brightness to a spot hallowed by many memories, for it was in this shady glen that the Emperor passed the most peaceful hours of his exile and it was here that he rested for twenty years until France brought him back in triumph to his final resting-place under the great gilt dome of Les Invalides.
Longwood House. “This miserable cottage, with its sunken roof and lichen-coated walls, sheltered for more than half a decade the conqueror of Europe.”
Looking northward across the Atlantic from Longwood. “To stare out across the wastes of ocean from that wind-swept hilltop I travelled twenty thousand miles.”
THE PRISON PLACE OF A GREAT EMPEROR.
Both Longwood and the grave occupy the peculiar position of being French territory in the heart of a [Pg 269] British colony, for half a century ago Queen Victoria presented the property to the French nation, an official appointed by the French Government residing on and caring for the place and showing it with mingled pride and sadness to the few visitors who make their way to this one of the world's far corners. It was an interesting but gloomy experience, that pilgrimage to the prison place of the great Emperor, for it visualised for me, as nothing else ever could do, the sordidness, the humiliations, and the mental tortures which marked the last years of Napoleon. As my vessel steamed steadily northward across the Atlantic, with the boulevards of Paris not three weeks away, I leaned over the taffrail and, staring back at the receding cliffs of that grim island, I seemed to see the short, stoop-shouldered, gray-coated, cock-hatted figure of the Emperor staring wistfully out across those leagues of ocean toward France.
To locate the next of these “Forgotten Isles,” and the most completely forgotten of all of them, you had better get out the family atlas and, with a ruler and a pencil, do a little Morris-chair exploring. Draw a line due south from Cape Verde, which is the westernmost point of Africa, and another line due east from Cape San Roque, which is the easternmost point in South America, and where those two lines meet, out in the wastes of the South Atlantic, you will find a barren rock which resembles, as, indeed, it is, an extinct and partially submerged volcano. This rock, which is considerably smaller than its sister island of Saint Helena, [Pg 270] seven hundred miles away, is officially designated by the British Government as H.M.S. “Ascension.” Entirely under the control and jurisdiction of the Lords Orgmissioners of the Admiralty, it is unique in that it is the only island in the world which has the rating of a man-o'-war, being garrisoned, or rather manned, by a detachment of sailors and marines, and being administered in every respect as though it were a unit of the British navy. With the exception of a dozen acres of vegetable garden, there is not a single green thing on the islandgrass, shrub, or tree. The island of Saint Pierre, of which I made mention earlier in this chapter, is bad enough, goodness knows, but it at least has a palm-tree. Ascension hasn't even that. How they get men to go there is altogether beyond my comprehension. If I had to take my choice between being sentenced to exile on Ascension (which Heaven forbid!) or confinement in Sing Sing, I rather think I should choose the prison. There are people on Ascension, nevertheless, the population, which consists of officers, seamen, and marines, together with a handful of cable operators and a score of Kroo boys from Sierra Leone, numbering in all about one hundred and thirty. There were also four womenrelatives of the officerson the island when I was there. They had been there only six months, I was told, yet when our vessel arrived not one of them was on speaking terms with the others. Ascension, is, however, one of the most flourishing “match factories” in the British empire, it being safe to say that any unattached female, no matter what her disqualifications, can get a [Pg 271] husband in a week's stay on the island. A young Englishman and his bride boarded our boat at Ascension. She had been born and had spent all of her life on Saint Helena (which is not exactly a roaring metropolis itself), and had married one of the cable operators stationed at Ascension, who was taking her on her first visit to the outside world. She told me that the event of her life, her marriage excepted, had been going out to a vessel to see a motor-car which was being transported to Cape Town. Here was an educated and intelligent English girl who had come to womanhood without ever having seen a railway train, a street-car, a building over two stories high, or a crowd of more than five hundred people. When we reached Teneriffe, in the Canaries, which is about as somnolent a place as any I know, her husband took her ashore to see the sights with keen anticipation. She rode on an electric car, she took tea in a four-story hotel, she attended a moving-picture showand was brought back to the steamer suffering from violent hysterics. A week later we reached Southampton, where she was so completely prostrated by the roar and bustle of her first city that she had to go to bed under medical attention.
To those British officials and soldiers who are performing the manifold duties of empire along Africa's fever-stricken West Coast, the island of Ascension is a godsend, for an excellent sanatorium has been built by the government on its highest point, and to it come wasted, sunken-cheeked, fever-racked skeletons from all parts of that coast of death to build up their strength before [Pg 272] going back to their work again. Not only is Ascension a coaling, cable, and health station of considerable importance, but it is also the chief habitat of the sea-turtle, which comes there in thousands between January and May, to lay its eggs in the sand. After having seen the enormous size these creatures attain, it is almost possible to believe some of those fantastic yarns about his trained turtles with which Baron de Rougemont set Europe gasping a few years back. During the year that I visited Ascension more than two hundred turtles were captured, ranging in weight from five hundred to eight hundred pounds apiece. Four of the monsters, each weighing close to half a ton, were put aboard our vessel, being sent by the officers of the garrison as a gift to his Majesty the King. They must have had turtle soup at Buckingham Palace for several days in succession after those turtles arrived.
It could not have been long after daybreak when a frousy-headed Greek steward awoke me with an intimation that we were off Canea. The evil-smelling mixture which was called coffee only by courtesy, and which was really chicory in disguise, held no attraction for me, for, through the port-holes of the dining-saloon I could see, rising from a sapphire sea, the green-clad, snow-capped mountains of Crete, the island of mythology and massacre.
Our little steamer forged ahead at half-speed and the white town kept coming nearer and nearer, until we could distinguish the caiques in the harbour, and the [Pg 273] queer, narrow houses with their latticed harem windows which encircled it, and the white mosque with a palm-tree silhouetted against its slender minaret, and even the crowd of ebony, tan, and coffee-coloured humanity that fought for posts of vantage at the water-stairs. It was a picture of sunshine and animation, of vivid colours and strange peoples, such as one seldom sees except in some gorgeously staged comic opera, and as I surveyed it sleepily from the steamer's deck I had a momentary feeling that I was only an onlooker at a play and that the curtain would go down presently and I should have to go out into the drab, prosaic, humdrum world again.
But even as this was in my mind a gun boomed out from a crumbling bastion and five little balls ran up five flagstaffs which I had already noticed standing all in a row on the uppermost ramparts and had mistaken, naturally enough, for some new form of Marconi apparatus. The five little balls broke out into five flags and the morning breeze caught up their folds and held them straight out as though for our benefit, so that we could make them out quite plainly. Four of them were old friends that I had known on many seasthe union Jack and the Tricolour and the Saint Andrew's cross of Russia and the red-white-and-green banner of Italybut the fifth flag, which flew somewhat higher than the others, was of unfamiliar design; but the blood-red square of bunting, traversed by the Greek cross and bearing in its upper corner the star of Bethlehem, told its own story and I knew it for the flag of Crete. And I knew that there was deep significance in the design [Pg 274] of that unknown flag and in the position of the four familiar ones that flew below it, for they signalled to the world that the Turk had been driven out, never to return; that Christianity had triumphed over Mohammedanism, and that the cross had, indeed, replaced the crescent; that the centuries of massacre were now but memories; that peace, in the guise of foreign soldiery, had, for a time at least, found an abiding-place in Crete; and, most significant of all, that the new flag with its single star would be upheld, if necessary, by the mightiest array of bayonets and battle-ships in Christendom.
The island of Crete, which is about the size of Porto Rico, not only occupies a very important strategical position, being nearly equidistant from the coasts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, commanding every line of communication in the eastern Mediterranean, and being within easy striking distance of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and the Canal, but it is also one of the richest agricultural regions in the world, or would be if the warring elements among its population would permit the rattle of the harvester to replace the rattle of the machine-gun. Ever since the Turks wrested the island from the Venetians, close on two and a half centuries ago, its history has been one of corruption, cruelty, and massacre. Almost annually, for more than seventy years, the island Christians rose in rebellion against their Turkish masters, and just as regularly the Turks suppressed those rebellions with a severity which turned the towns of the island into shambles and its fertile farm-lands into a deserted wilderness. The cruelty [Pg 275] which coupled the name of Turk with execration in Armenia and Macedonia assumed such atrocious forms in Crete that finally the great powers were aroused to action, and in 1898 the fleets of England, France, Italy, and Russia dropped anchor in Suda Bay, the Turkish officials were forcibly deported, and a board of admirals assumed control of the affairs of the unhappy island. After a few months of martial government, during which the admirals squabbled continuously among themselves, the intervening powers proclaimed the island an autonomous state, subject to the Porte, but paying no tribute, and ruled by a high commissioner to be appointed by the King of the Hellenes. Though theoretically independent, it was provided that all questions concerning the foreign relations of Crete should be determined by the representatives of the powers, who would also maintain in the island, for a time at least, an international army of occupation. Recent events in the Balkans having resulted in bringing about an agitation in Crete for annexation to Greece, where a propaganda has long been vigorously carried on with that end in view, the protecting powers have definitely announced that the administration of the island will be continued by the “constituted authorities” (this should read “self-constituted”) until the question can be settled with the consent of Turkey. As things stand at present, the withdrawal of the international troops from Crete is about as distant as the withdrawal of the British garrisons from Egypt. To tell the truth, each of the protecting powers is exceedingly anxious to get the island for [Pg 276] itselfEngland because it forms an admirable half-way house between Gibraltar and the Canal; France because its occupation would carry French influence into the eastern end of the Mediterranean; Italy because it would serve as a connecting link between the peninsula and Tripolitania; and Russia because it would give her the command of the entrance to the Dardanellesand hence, though they will certainly never restore it to Turkey, they are far from anxious to hand it over to Greece, to whom, after all, it belongs historically, geographically, and ethnologically. As a result, the Cretan question will probably disturb the chancelleries of Europe for some years to come.
As I strained my eyes across the sparkling waters in vain search for signs of a hotel and breakfast, a boat flying the port-captain's flag and manned by gendarmessplendid, muscular fellows with high boots and bare knees and baggy Turkish trousers, their keen brown faces peering out from under their fluttering cap-coverscame racing out from shore. As it came alongside the crew tossed oars with all the smartness of man-o'-war's-men; the white-clad officer in the stern, who was very stout and very stiffly starched, climbed the stairs gingerly, as though fearful of injuring the faultless crease in his linen trousers, and, after the exchange of ceremonious bows and laboured compliments in French, informed me that the High Orgmissioner had placed the boat at my disposal. There is always something peculiarly satisfying to the soul about going ashore under official auspices, not only because of the envious [Pg 277] glances of your fellow-passengers who line the rail, but because of the powerlessness of the customs officials to annoy you.
Canea, which is the seat of government, is the most picturesquely cosmopolitan place west of Suez. It has a mild and equable climate; living is cheap and reasonably good; there is a large garrison of foreign soldiery; there are no extradition treaties in force; and trouble of one kind or another is always brewing. Like a magnet, therefore, Canea has attracted the scum and offscourings of all the Levantneedy soldiers of fortune, professional revolution-makers, smooth-spoken gamblers and confidence men, rouged and powdered women of easy virtue from east and west, Egyptian donkey-boys, out-at-elbows dragomans who speak a score of tongues and hail from goodness knows whereall that rabble of the needy, the adventurous, and the desperate which follow the armies of occupation and are always to be found on the fringe of civilisation.
The foreign troops are quartered for the most part on the massive Venetian ramparts which still surround the town, but all business centres along the narrow, stone-paved quay bordering the harbour, and in a straggling thoroughfare which, leaving the water-front through a fine old gate still bearing the carven lion of Saint Mark, serves as the vertebra for an amazing tangle of dim alleys and deafening bazaars, in which all the products of the Levant are bought and sold amid indescribable confusion.
Canea is at its best at sunset, for it is not until [Pg 278] then that the town awakens to life. As the sun begins to sink behind the Aspra Vouna, the streets, hitherto deserted, become thronged as though by magic; the spaces before the cafs are packed with coffee-drinking, nargileh-smoking humanity of all shades and of all religions; the soldiers begin to appear in groups of twos and threes and fours; the clerks in the shipping-offices put on white drill jackets, and sit in chairs tipped back against their doors, and drink from tall, thin glasses with ice tinkling in them, and the muezzin, brazen-throated, appears on the balcony of his minaret, reminding one for all the world of a Swiss cuckoo-clock as he pops out to chant his interminable call to prayer: “Allahu il Allahu! Allahu Akbar! God is most great! Orge to prayer! There is no God but Allah! He giveth life and dieth not! Your sins are great; greater is Allah's mercy! I extol his perfections! Allahu il Allahu! Allahu Akbar!”
It is such a scene as one marks with the white milestone of remembrance that he may go back to it in memory in after years. Picture, if you can, a stone-paved promenade bordering a U-shaped harbour. In the harbour are many craftall small ones, for it is too shallow for the great steamers to enter. There are caiques with sails of orange, of scarlet, and of yellow; schooners, grain-laden, from Egypt and Turkey and Greece; fishing-boats with rakish lateen-sails and great goggle eyes painted at their bows to ward off the evil eye, and, so the sailors will tell you, to detect the fish. And along the quayside, where the human stream wanders [Pg 279] restlessly, there are Greeks in tufted shoes and snowy fustanellas that make them look like ballet-dancers; swarthy Turks in scarlet sashes and scarlet fezes, wearing the unsightly trousers peculiar to their race; bare-kneed Cretan highlanders, descendants in form and feature of the ancient Greeks, swaggering along with insolent grace in their braided, sleeveless jackets and high boots of yellow, untanned leather; Algerians in graceful flowing burnooses and Egyptians with tarbooshes and Arabs with turbansnow and then a mollah with scornful, intolerant eyes and the green turban which marks the wearer as a descendant of the Prophetand brawny, coal-black negroes from Tripoli, from Nubia, and from the Sudan.
And then there are the soldiers: British Tommies, smart even in khaki, boots shining, buckles shining, faces shining, swaggering along this Cretan street and flourishing their absurd little canes precisely as their fellows are doing all over the globe; French colonials, swathed in blue puttees from ankle to knee and in red cummerbunds from hip to chest, their misery completed by mushroom helmets so large that nothing can be seen of the wearer but his chin; chattering Italian bersaglieri, who strut about in cocks' feathers and crimson facings when at home in the Corso or the Toledo or the Via Vittorio Emmanuele, but out here must needs content their vanity with white linen uniforms and green hackle in their helmets; sad-faced Russians, uniformed as they would be in summer in Saint Petersburg or Moscow, flat white caps, belted white smocks, trousers [Pg 280] tucked in boots, their good-humoured, ignorant faces stamped with all the signs of homesickness, for their thoughts are far away in some squalid tenement in the poor quarter of Warsaw perhaps, or in a peasant's cabin beside the head-waters of the Volga.
Though Canea is the seat of government, Candiaor Heraklian, the classic name by which the Greeks prefer to call itis the largest and most important town on the island. Disregarding the advice of friends, I went from Canea to Candia on a Greek coasting steamer. No one ever takes a first-class passage on a Greek boat, for the second and third class passengers invariably come aft and stay there, despite the commands and entreaties of the purser, so a third-class ticket answers quite as well as a first. Fortunatelyor unfortunately, as you choose to regard itI had as fellow voyagers a company of British infantry, which was being transferred to Candia after three years' service in the western end of the island. The soldiers, who had managed to smuggle aboard a considerable quantity of rum, quickly got beyond the control of the boy lieutenant, just out of Sandhurst, who was in command, and who, appreciating that discretion is the better part of valour, especially where a hundred drunken soldiers are concerned, wisely left them to their own boisterous devices and retreated with me to the captain's quarters on the bridge, where we remained until we sighted Candia's harbour lights and our anchor rumbled down inside the breakwater.
Were it not for the massive Venetian walls which [Pg 281] surround it, Candia would have almost the appearance of an Indian town, the similarity being increased by its dark-faced, gaily dressed inhabitants and by the British soldiers who throng its streets. A single broad, stone-paved thoroughfare, lined in places with shade-trees and surprisingly clean, winds like a snake from the harbour up the hill, past rows of blackened ruinsgrim reminders of the latest insurrectionpast square after square of white-walled, red-tiled houses; through noisy bazaars where the turbaned shopkeepers squat patiently in their doorways; past unkept marble fountains whose stained carvings would make many a museum director envious; past mosques with slender, graceful minarets and groups of filthy beggars grovelling on their steps for alms; past the ornate, twin-domed Greek cathedral, and so on to the ramparts where the British garrison is quartered in yellow barracks that overlook the sea.
But the real Crete is no more to be judged from glimpses of Canea and Candia than America could be judged by visiting New York and Chicago. It is in the picturesque mountain villages of the Sphakiote range that the genuine, untamed, unmixed fighting Cretan is to be found, for these dwellers on the slopes of Mount Ida, alone of all the scattered branches of the great Hellenic family, have preserved in form and feature the splendid physical characteristics of the ancient Greeks. With the Governor of Candia for my guide, the mountain village of Archanais as our destination, and with an escort of gendarmerie clattering at our heels, we set out from Candia one morning before the [Pg 282] sun was over the walls, for we had forty miles of hard riding between us and dinner, and roads in the Sphakiote country often consist of nothing more than dried-up water-courses. For the first few miles the road was crowded with peasantry bringing their produce to marketdroves of donkeys, wine-skin-laden; long strings of the sturdy, shaggy native ponies tethered head to tail and tail to head, their panniers filled with purple figs or new-dug potatoes; sullen-eyed Turks driving rude native carts, their women-folk veiled to the eyes and hiding even them in the presence of the giaours; chattering Greeks with homespun rugs or bundles of the heavy native lace; now and then a prosperous farmer, striding along with a peculiar rolling walk, due to the round-soled boots affected by the islanders, carrying a measure of potatoes or perhaps a pair of fowls in the baggy seat of his enormous trousers. We passed a grass-grown Turkish cemetery where the gilded tombstones, capped by carven fezes or turbans in the case of men, and shells in that of women, blazed in the morning sunlight, while, a little farther on, we halted for a few moments before the tomb of a revered sheikh, almost hidden by the bits of cloth which the passing faithful had torn from their garments and tied to it.
Some half a dozen miles inland from Candia lie the ruins of Knossos, the one-time palace of King Minos, a powerful monarch of the Mycen?an age who is supposed to have ruled in Crete during that hazy era when mythology ended and history began. The audience chamber and the royal throne, which were old when the [Pg 283] Pyramids were built, are still in a perfect state of preservation, though these amazing evidences of prehistoric grandeur are no more interesting than the marvellous network of cellars and subterranean passages which underlie the palace, many of them still lined, just as they were five thousand years ago, with row upon row of mammoth earthen jars for the storage of grain, of olives, and of wine in time of famine or siege. Many eminent arch?ologists, by the way, maintain that it was from this bewildering maze of corridors and passage-ways that the legend of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, the scene of which was laid in Crete, arose. Were Crete as easy of access as Egypt, these ruins of Knossos would long since have taken rank with those which dot the banks of the Upper Nile.
Half a dozen hours of riding over an open, sun-baked country and later through gloomy pine woods and mountain defiles, with an occasional halt at a wayside xenodocheion that the troopers of our escort might refresh themselves with that nauseous-tasting fermentation of rice known as arrack, which is the national drink of Greece, brought us at last, hot, saddle-worn, and weary, into the village square of Archanais. The demarch of the town, with a dozen or so of the insurrectionist chieftains from the surrounding mountains, awaited our coming beneath a hoary plane-tree that shaded half the village square. Seats were placed for us beneath its grateful shade, and, with the ceremony of which the Greeks are so fond, we were served with small cups of Turkish coffee and with the inevitable [Pg 284] loukoum, which is a candy resembling “Turkish delight.” This formal welcome, which no Cretan ever neglects, completed, we were escorted to the house of the demarch, with whom we were to dine. It was a long, low-roofed, homelike dwelling, red tiles above and white plaster beneath, and surrounding it a garden ablaze with flowers. Met at the door by a servant with a pitcher of chased brass, we proceeded to wash in the open air, the domestic pouring the water over our hands in a steady stream, according to the Cretan fashion.
The dinner was beyond description. From a Cretan standpoint it was doubtless a feast for the gods. I, being ravenous with hunger, asked not the names of the strange dishes, but enjoyed everything that was set before me as only a hungry man can. The meal began with ripe olives and spiced meat chopped up with wheat grains and wrapped in mulberry leaves; it passed on through a course that resembled fried egg-plant but wasn't; through duck, stuffed with rice and olives and cooked in oil, and a pudding that tasted as though it had been flavoured with eau de cologne, concluding with small native melons, which I have never seen equalled for flavour except in Turkestan, and, of course, coffee and cigarettes. The meal lasted something over three hours, and then, sitting cross-legged on the divan which ran entirely around the room, the whole party dropped one by one to sleep. The one recollection of Archanais which will always remain with me is that of a roomful of swarthy-faced, black-moustached, baggy-trousered, armed-to-the-teeth, overfed men, notorious revolutionists [Pg 285] every one, all sound asleep and all snoring like steam-engines.
That night we rode down the mountains in the moonlight, the snow-capped peaks looming luridly against the purple sky. The moonbeams lighted up the ruined farmsteads which we passed and played fitfully among the gnarled branches of the ancient olive-trees, giving to the silent land an aspect of unutterable peace. The whole world seemed sleeping and the hoofs of our horses rang loudly against the stones. The road which had been white with dust in the morning was a ribbon of silver now; the stately palm-trees stirred ever so gently in the night breeze; the ruins of ancient Knossos grew larger in the moonlight until all its ancient glory seemed restored; the crosses on the Greek cathedral and the crescents on the slender minarets seemed to raise themselves in harmony like fingers pointing toward heaven; the great guns that frowned from the ramparts were hidden in the shadowsall was silence, beauty, infinite peace, until, as we walked our tired horses slowly across the creaking drawbridge into the city, a helmeted figure stepped from the shadow of the walls, a rifle flashed in the moonlight, and a harsh voice challenged:
“Halt! Who goes there?”