Page images
PDF

rode off alone in search of Madame Valles's plantation. The road lay along the shore—a lovely grass path, overshadowed by all manner of beautiful trees, of which the most conspicuous is here called the tamanu, an old acquaintance with a new name. In Fiji it is called ndelo. It is common not only throughout Polynesia but also in the East Indies, and in Mauritius." In all these lands this noble tree grows and flourishes, just above high-water mark, on what seems to us the most arid sandy shores, and outstretches its wide branches with their rich dark foliage, casting cool delicious shadows on the dazzling coralsands, a boon to tired eyes, weary of the mid-day glare. It is a tree for the healing of the nations. Its large glossy leaves, when soaked in fresh water, are valuable in reducing inflammation of the eyes; and its round green fruit contains a small grey ball, within which lies a kernel, which yields about sixty per cent of a green-coloured bitter oil, worth about 4.90 a ton in the Anglo-Indian market. It is an invaluable remedy as a liniment in all forms of rheumatism, rheumatic fever, bruises, stiffness, and similar ailments. Throughout the isles its virtues are fully recognised, but it is only prepared in small quantities for domestic use, and stored by prudent * Calophyllum inophyllum.

SEED-STREWN SHORES. 217

householders, in hollow gourds, which are the correct substitute for bottles. The labour of expressing the oil, by any hand process, is so great as to prevent an extensive manufacture; and I am not aware that any machinery for this purpose has found its way to the Pacific, though it does seem a pity that so valuable a product should be wasted, as it now is. Wherever we go, in any of these isles, the sea-beach is strewn with myriads of these, and other seeds, some of which, such as the gigantic climbing-bean," have been washed down by the mountain streams; while others, such as these grey balls, and the curious square-shaped seeds of the Barringtonia, in their outer case of nature-woven fibre, drop from the boughs which overhang the sea. The white blossom of the tamanu trees is both fragrant and ornamental, and many a pleasant hour have I spent on many a lovely isle, alone (save for the omnipresent army of hermit-crabs) beneath the shade of these grand trees, beside the cool blue waters of the Pacific. I had no difficulty in finding Madame Valles's home — a lovely nest, perched high on the hillside, with a background of grey rock-pinnacles and crags. The house is embowered in greenery, and from its verandahs you look through a frame of pure scarlet hybiscus to the bluest of lagoons, divided from the purply ocean beyond, by the line of gleaming white breakers which bound the coralreef. M. Valles is at present very unwell, and quite a prisoner, so double work falls to the lot of Madame Valles, who has to do most of her own cooking and house-work, milk her own cow, and attend with unwearied care to that most precarious of all crops, vanilla. So you see that even in Moorea plantation life is not luxurious. The great difficulty here is to obtain labour; and there is not one regular servant or labourer on this estate. Fifteen acres of coffee have all run wild, and grown into tall straggling bushes, from total lack of hands to tend it. As there is no one to gather the crop of ripe red coffee-cherries, they are left to drop, and the rats eat the soft fruit, leaving the beans untouched; so the family collect these, all ready pulped, and devoutly wish the rats were ten times as numerous. But the most precious crop here is vanilla, which is both pretty and lucrative, being worth about four dollars a pound. It is a luxuriant creeper, and grows so freely that a branch broken off and falling on the ground takes root of its own accord; and it climbs all over the tall coffee-shrubs, the palms, avocat pear and orange trees, and everything that

* Entada scandens.

VANILLA CULTIVATION. 219

comes in its way, growing best on living wood, the tendrils thence deriving sustenance. It also flourishes best in unweeded grounds, the roots being thereby kept cool. So the steep wooded hillside is densely matted with this fragrant spice, which scents the whole air-indeed the atmosphere of the house is redolent of vanilla. It is like living in a spice-box, as the pods are laid to dry in every available corner. They must be gathered unripe, and dried in a moist warm place; sometimes they are packed under layers of quilts to prevent them from bursting, and so losing their fragrant essence. All this sounds very pleasant, and only suggests light work, yet in truth this cultivation involves most exhausting toil. The plant is an exotic; it lives in these isles by the will of the planter, not by nature's law. In its native home exquisite humming-birds hover over its blossoms, therein darting their long bills in search of honey, and drawing them forth, clogged with the golden pollen, which they carry to the next flower, thus doing nature's work of fertilisation. Here the flowers have no such dainty wooers, and the vanilla bears no fruit unless fertilised by human hand. So M. and Madame Valles, and their son, divide the steep hillside into three sections, and each morning they patiently but wearily toil up and down, up and down, again, and again, and again, in order to manipulate each blossom that has expanded during the night. “Faire le mariage des fleurs,” as Madame Valles describes her daily task, is no sinecure; it must be done during the hottest hours of the day, when any exertion is most exhausting. It needs a keen eye to detect each fresh blossom, and any neglected flower withers and drops. Each day the ripening pods must be gathered, and in dry weather the plants require frequent watering—an indescribable toil. This morning Madame Walles let me accompany her on her morning rounds, whereby I realised that toil and hardship are to be found even in paradise. We returned to breakfast, which was served by an old French soldier—a garrulous old fellow, and evidently quite “a character.” Apparently his life is a burden to him, by reason of the multitude of half-tamed animals which swarm about the place. In the dining-room were three old and six young cats; two large, three medium, and many small dogs, all hungrily clamouring for food, and only kept off the table by the free use of a large, resounding whip. In the afternoon M. Brun came in search of me, and we rode to the head of the bay, where there is a beautiful estate, and large comfortable house, built

« PreviousContinue »