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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 Mahé, 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 Mahé, 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. Mahé, 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 women—English, French, and German—who 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 Mahé I never knew what hospitality really meant. When our anchor rumbled down under the shadow of the Morne Seychellois, and the police boat—its 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 children—had [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'Opéra—they 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 home—the 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 Mahé 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 universal—if 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 night—this 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 pillow—while, 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 Mahé—King 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 pièce de résistance 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 obvious—whether he takes his meat rare or well done, whether he prefers the tenderloin or the sirloin, whether he likes white meat better than black—but 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 Ashantee—at least I suppose it was Ashantee—to 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 outré 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 Mahé 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 me—a 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 Mahé and Diégo-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 Mahé 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 Nantucket—or 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 papers—especially the illustrated weeklies—from 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-sills—just 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 Wellington—then Sir Arthur Wellesley—on 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 Company's force of [Pg 266] operators—tennis-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............
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