TAMPAKAN AND THE HOME STRETCH
OUR last day in Bongao the Governor secured a little pearling launch, the Hilda, and took several of the Burnside people on a jaunt to the island of Siminor, as it is written on the map, or Siminol, as it is called by the natives. Siminol is about ten miles south of Bongao, and our destination was the town of Tampakan. It was a misty, moisty afternoon, with a sharp salt smell to the air, and through the haze distant mountains loomed spectre-like, or else melted into blue clouds on the horizon.
After a two hours’ run, during which the Hilda wheezed and puffed like a fat old woman in a tight frock, we reached Tampakan, and anchored as near the shore as was practicable, blowing our whistle to attract the attention of the villagers. In a few moments several praus and bancas were poled out to the ship by a motley array of half-clad Moros, big, brown, lithe fellows, each with a turban or fez topping off his black hair, and all armed with a goodly array of sharp knives. Over the side of the launch they swarmed, talking excitedly with our interpreter, the chief vigilante of Bongao, and reminding one strongly of their piratical forebears. Many of these very men had been pirates in Spanish days, and not one of them but was a descendant of some marauder of the high seas.
MARKET-DAY IN A MORO VILLAGE
The three hundred yards that we had to be poled to shore from the Hilda was through water not more than three feet deep, and over a bed of pink and white coral, which could be plainly seen through the crystal clearness. At low tide one can walk out over this submarine beach, but the Moros say that the rocks, seaweed, and coral lose much of their beauty when not seen through a lens of water. At the time of our visit it was such high tide that even with the native praus and the little rowboat from the launch, we were unable to make a good landing, so the men jumped ashore in imminent danger of a wetting, while we women were carried, one by one, through the surf.
A villainous looking gentleman, whose costume consisted of skin-tight Moro trousers and an American bath towel, was introduced by our host as the head man of the town, and he shook hands all around, quite solemnly and conscientiously, as if it had been a religious rite imported to Tawi Tawi by these strange white people.
Meanwhile the entire male population of the place gathered about us, and we found them in very truth a murderous looking lot, armed to the teeth with barongs and krises and campilans, while none of us had any visible means of self-protection. There were a few pocket revolvers, however, hidden under the officers’ blouses, and well hidden, the Governor having warned us to take no arms of any description to Tampakan, for while money would have been no temptation to these people, they would not have hesitated long to kill one for a Krag rifle or a Colt revolver.
After the head man had religiously shaken every newcomer’s hand, our officers began bargaining with him and with his people for their knives, and the crowd of men around us grew every moment greater, with not a woman in sight. There were men in complete Moro costume, handsome and picturesque; others ruining their appearance by the addition of a hideous balbriggan undershirt, sandwiched between tight trousers with innumerable buttons and a brilliantly coloured turban; while still others, in little else than a fez and breech-clout, seemed not a whit abashed. The children were either quite naked, or wrapped in sarongs, faded by the sun and weather to a dull harmony of their once too brilliant reds and greens.
A GROUP OF MOROS
Finally on the outskirts of the crowd I caught a glimpse of three Moro women, and forced my way to them, shaking hands and smiling as affably as possible. They shook hands in return, rather awkwardly, but answered smile with smile, talking excitedly in their native tongue, and seeming surprised that I could speak only a word or two of Malay, without doubt a more agreeable language than that harsh and unintelligible one in which the white officers were bargaining for barongs and krises.
Over the stone fortification a short distance away I had a glimpse of tree tops and the steep, slanting roofs of nipa houses, while at the gate stood still another group of women, most of them dressed from the waist to the knees only. Motioning my three friends to follow, I approached these women, whereupon they took fright and hid behind the nearest house. That is, all but one old crone, too feeble to run, who tremblingly awaited her fate until, reassured by the manner of those I had talked to outside the wall, she lifted up her voice in voluble Malay, evidently telling the others that the strange creature neither bit nor scratched, whereat they all came back, first slowly by ones and twos, and then more rapidly, until they stood around me in a ring at least twenty deep.
As women have a language of their own the world over, we understood each other quickly; and how friendly they were, and how delighted with my clothes and all the little accessories, the hat, the veil, the belt, the collar. Next they were amazed at my teeth, and pointed to their own blackened ones, and then to mine, pushing forward little girls under ten to show that only children should have white teeth, while I, despite my extreme age, still sported such evidences of youth. Was it possible I considered myself a child? Or was I younger than I looked? Next my skin was marvelled at, and they took my hands in theirs and shouted with good-natured laughter at the difference in colour between us, for despite two and a half years of tropic tan, my skin, compared with theirs, was very light.
Before I realized what they were doing, they had unbuttoned the cuff of my shirtwaist and pushed the sleeve a little way up my arm, evidently anxious to see if I were white all over, while at the same moment a small girl of twelve, married or of marriageable age, as one could tell from her stained teeth, knelt down on the ground at my feet and was apparently examining my shoes.
Suddenly she gave a startled cry, and before I could prevent her, lifted my skirt and petticoat to the ankle, revealing a small expanse of black lisle thread stocking. For a moment there was an intense silence, followed by a low murmur of astonishment, which soon grew into a veritable roar of displeasure, and the women no longer beamed approvingly, but gathered together on one side, regarding me with great disfavour.
I was dumfounded at this sudden change of manner, and could not account for it in any way, until I saw some of the blackest among them pointing to their own bare legs with apparent pride, and then turning scornfully and motioning in my direction. Did they object to my wearing stockings? Or was it possible they had mistaken the stockings for skin?
Acting on this very improbable suggestion, I demonstrated that the black outside covering could easily be peeled off, whereupon there was great amazement, and once again the women crowded around in deifying adulation. They had thought their American idol had worse than clay feet, that the feet were black, blacker even than their own dusky skins, and their relief was obvious at finding the dark flesh but a close fitting covering.
So it was I was again restored to favour, and the women with swift, shy gestures fingered my dress and hat, my army belt, and the red silk handkerchief at the throat of my sailor collar, saying, “Mariloa, mariloa” over and over, which in their tongue means “pretty” or “good,” depending on how it is used.
They laughed at my shoes, spreading out their flexible toes that I might see how much more comfortable feet were unshod, and then pointed to their hands, indicating that it were quite as sensible to wear shoes there as on the feet, which made me sorry some of us had not worn gloves. Also I was much amused to notice that after biting even so lightly of the fruit of knowledge, most of the women about me had drawn up the folds of the sarongs, tied so artlessly around their waists, and fastened them securely under the armpits, so that they were clothed quite decorously from shoulder to knee.
There was one beautiful little girl among the many plain ones in Tampakan. She could not have been over ten years old, and her heavy eyebrows were shaved into a narrow black line above magnificent eyes, shaded by phenomenally long lashes. Her features were regular and finely cut, her mouth being particularly pretty, and when she smiled, which was seldom, her red lips disclosed even little teeth, glistening and white. Her very hair, fringed heavily above her brow, was soft and fine and hung almost to her knees in a dusky, rippling cloud, while both tiny ears were pierced, the left one boasting an ivory stick about the size and shape of a cigarette, and the other a roll of red rags, which barbaric custom served only to enhance her wildwood tropic beauty.
The child’s ena, or mother, was evidently very proud of her daughter, and through the interpreter, told me that within a year the little maid was to marry a datto in a neighbouring town. A very great honour, to be sure, and then her pretty, gleaming teeth will be blackened and filed into an arch, her eyebrows shaved off completely, and at twenty-five the little beauty will doubtless have been transformed into a wrinkled, loathsome old hag, and perhaps a grandmother to boot!
At the windows of a house under which we stood, women, who for some reason did not mingle with the others of the village, peered down at us curiously, some holding up their sarongs to cover all but the eyes, and some frankly interested, with uncovered faces; while still other creatures, of nightmare ugliness, their skins plastered with a white flour paste, their eyebrows shaved, and their teeth newly blackened and filed into shape, incurred the displeasure of their respective lords and masters by appearing at the window even for a few moments at a time, it not being Moro etiquette that these recent brides of the neighbourhood should be seen until a later period.
About this time Half-a-Woman and her mother appeared on the scene, the American child, with her golden hair and white skin, enthusing the Moro women to the utmost, while the tall slenderness of the mother excited their voluble admiration. But neither mother nor daughter appreciated natives, except as accessories to the landscape, so they delayed not on the order of their going, and audibly marvelled that I could be interested in such filthy wretches, insinuating that a carbolic bath would be necessary on our return to the ship. But the Moro women, unconscious of any criticism as to their personal neatness, smiled at the Americanas delightedly, telling me through the interpreter that it would take two or three Moro women to make one as tall as the quartermaster’s wife, who looked very young indeed to have attained so great a height!
When the officers had completed their purchases, they started through the village on a tour of inspection, and at their approach my women friends beat a hasty retreat, scattering in every direction like so many quail; but as we proceeded along the one street of the town, accompanied by a veritable army of native boys and men, I saw at the windows of different houses many familiar faces, all grinning cheerfully in response to my nods of recognition.
The houses of Tampakan are built on one side of this broad street, and are small nipa shacks on stilts, with steps of bamboo logs, and steep thatched roofs, while back of this first row of houses stands another row, and back of that still another. At the far end of the street two or three houses are built at right angles to the rest, and it was here that beautifully woven petates, or sleeping mats, were offered for sale, some of them white with appliqués of red and blue cloth in curious designs, and others of split bamboo, the patterns being woven in with different colours.
These mats were most reasonable in price, none of them costing over a dollar and a half, and some very pretty ones were valued at only fifty cents apiece, but for sanitary reasons we were obliged to forswear them, unique as they were, for they had all been in use, and we had seen more than one leper among the villagers, and numerous evidences in scars and sores of loathsome skin diseases.
Embroidered turbans, jabuls, and sarongs were also offered for sale, as were chow-covers and tall pointed hats, while one man with great pride produced for our inspection a pressed glass sugar bowl, that variety which one does not have to examine or tap with the finger to prove counterfeit. It was pressed glass with no intention to deceive, the kind one runs across in the dining-room of country hotels, or at cheap department stores. That it was appraised highly in Siminol, however, was beyond question, and on every side swarthy faces watched eagerly to see what impression it would make upon us, though the owner himself assumed a nonchalant air, as became the possessor of so rare an article of virtu. It had evidently been in Siminol a long time, and was possibly stolen from a trading-post on some piratical expedition, or looted from a Spanish planter’s home during a raid on a coast town, or more prosaically acquired in exchange for curios. However that may be, it was considered a rare bit of bric-à-brac in Siminol, and the possessor was counted a most fortunate man among his fellows.
There were many beautiful barongs bought that day, the natives willingly exchanging them for money, which the Governor of Bongao declared was a unique way to disarm an enemy. American gold was especially appreciated, and the natives passed a piece around from hand to hand with an absolutely childish delight in its yellow beauty.
One of my purchases I paid for with a new five dollar gold piece, and before turning the money over to the Moro, held it for a moment pendent from my ear to suggest an earring, pointing at the same time to one of his wives, who was standing in the doorway of their house. The man was delighted with the suggestion, as were numerous other Moros who had seen the pantomime, and the woman in question clapped her hands and laughed aloud. I have often wondered whether or not she received that earring, and if it became a universal custom in Tampakan to wear money thus.
A COLLECTION OF MORO WEAPONS
One of the officers, while drawing out some change from his pocket to pay for a very handsome and expensive barong, came across a gold-plated spread eagle, such as officers wear on their shoulder-straps. It was worth perhaps twenty-five or fifty cents, but it glittered alluringly in the sunlight, and one of the Moros, with whom he had been bargaining, made a dive for the bit of metal, calling on his companions to look at it. After a swift examination the owner of the barong, to the officer’s intense surprise, offered him the knife in exchange for the worthless bauble. Noting the American’s hesitation, and misinterpreting it, the Moro added an embroidered turban to the knife, and waited in breathless expectation for his answer.
The officer still hesitated what to do, and then, through the interpreter, explained that the eagle was of no monetary value, and that he could not accept so expensive a knife or such a handsome turban in exchange for it. The Moro seemed astonished, but appreciated the reason, and had his first lesson in the apothegmatic saying that all is not gold which glitters. Later the eagle was given to the Bongao vigilante, who pinned it to the front of his fez, for was he not a protector of the peace under the great American government!
To one side of Tampakan stood a plot of ground used as a cemetery. This we saw from a distance only, the newly made graves presenting quite a gala appearance, decorated as they always are with bright coloured umbrellas, these being usually of yellow. When a Moro is buried his grave is protected from the sun and rain, and must be watched continually night and day for a period of three months, doubtless to keep the corpse from being defiled by man or beast.
At about six o’clock we left Tampakan, being followed to the boats by the entire male population of the town, even to toddling, naked boy babies, while the women hung out of their windows in imminent danger of a fall and shouted strange things at us in their own tongue, which the Bongao vigilante interpreted as “Good-bye, nice people, come again.”
It was almost dark when we reached the Hilda, and she immediately put off for the ship, though seeming literally to creep along, her engine wheezing even more painfully than earlier in the afternoon. At that rate we should certainly be late for dinner, and all were hungry from the trip across.
But a more serious contingency awaited us, for within a half-hour after starting, the native fireman came up on deck, his face blanched with fear, to say the boiler would not work, and that unless we could anchor at once we should be swept out to sea on the strong current. Soundings were immediately taken, and the water found very deep, so, dragging our anchor, and with our remaining bit of steam, we reached a place shallow enough for anchorage. It was literally the last gasp of the engine that put us in safety, for a moment more and we should have been adrift on the trackless sea.
Of course the next thing to be done was to send up distress rockets, with which we had fortunately provided ourselves, that the Burnside, whose lights we could faintly see far, far over on the horizon, might know of our predicament; but as it was not yet dark enough for her to distinguish our signal against the sunset sky, we decided to save our ammunition until there was no danger of its not being seen from the ship, there being but three rockets aboard the Hilda.
Those few minutes of waiting seemed preternaturally long, and when the first rocket was finally sent up, everyone watched, with almost feverish impatience, for the Burnside’s return signal. One minute passed in breathless silence; another minute, during which we shivered slightly with cold and excitement; ten seconds more, and a sudden flash in the direction of the ship, which we took to be a search-light answer to our rocket of distress, was greeted with a simultaneous yell of delight. But our joy was dampened suddenly by some one suggesting that the search-light might have been merely a coincidence as to time, and that the ship was in reality using it, as often happened, for other purposes. Then, too, as this same Jeremiah pointed out, a distress rocket would always be answered by a rocket, or at least by a Coston signal.
There was a general lowering of personal temperature at this, and a few moments later, with even less confidence than we had sent up the first rocket, a second one was launched. But this proved a failure, and went down instead of up, covering the water with a shower of golden sparks, which hissed and sputtered angrily on the green waves that were rocking the little Hilda back and forth as if she had been a cockle-shell. Of course there was no answer to this signal, for the ship could not have seen it at her great distance.
In the meantime the tide was going out so rapidly that we soon found ourselves in only two fathoms of water, the Hilda drawing one and a half fathoms, while every few minutes the bottom of the launch ground ominously on the rocks below. The pilot of the little craft was stretched out on the covered hatchway, frightfully seasick from the churning motion of the boat, when the native engineer, ghastly with terror, reported to the Governor what we had for some time suspected, namely, that we were anchored on a coral reef. To stay there much longer was out of the question, but as the boiler would not work, the only other alternative was to let the boat drift out to sea on the tide.
While we were all ostentatiously cool, I think there was not one among us but mentally computed just how long it would take for a hole to be knocked in the bottom of the boat, leaving us at the mercy of those cruel, green waves that licked at the Hilda’s sides with foaming tongues, eager for their prey. Our Jeremiah added to the general cheerfulness by advancing an enlivening theory to the effect that the Siminol Moros would undoubtedly surround us ere long, attracted by our futile signals to the ship, and brought up pleasant visions of swarthy pirates, under the leadership of our interpreter, making us walk the plank, or fighting against us to the death on a deck slippery with our own blood.
Only one more rocket left! How carefully it was hoisted to the top of the awning, and how circumspect was the man who applied a lighted cigarette to the fuse, while the rest of us breathlessly awaited the result. What if it, too, should prove a failure? The very thought was terrifying. But there went the rocket — up, up, up, — a steadily mounting streak of red, which seemed to touch the dark dome of the heavens before breaking into a shower of golden sparks. Eagerly we watched the ship for some answering sign. The seconds seemed like hours, the minutes like days. But at last, way over in the distance, a rocket from the Burnside split the darkness, and we looked at one another silently, too deeply moved for cheers, knowing it was only a question then of a race between our ship’s launch and the hungry, hurrying tide.
After a bit we laughed and joked a great deal to make the moments pass more quickly, while our host told good yarns and recited some of Eugene Field’s inimitable verse in an inimitable way, to a running accompaniment of the waves dashing against the side of the launch and her occasional bumping on the rocks below. So long as most of us live I fancy that “Casey’s Table d’Hôte” will be associated in our minds with that night on the coral reef.
At last in the distance we saw the red, white, and blue Coston signal of the Burnside’s launch, its skipper doubtless asking us for a guiding light, our lantern on the masthead not being visible over a mile. For a moment we were at a loss what to do, our last rocket having been used to signal to the ship, but some one took a newspaper which had been wrapped around a package, divided it in two, soaking one half of it in machinery oil from the engine-room. This greasy paper was then put on the end of a fishing-spear, and, when lighted, it made a glorious blaze, which was immediately answered by a second signal from the ship’s launch, which changed its course, making for us more directly. A little later, in answer to another signal, we lighted the paper remaining, and in reply to still another, some waste soaked in oil did duty as a light. By this time the launch was near enough for us to distinguish its whistle, to which of course we could not reply, having no steam. Meanwhile the tide was very low. “Nine feet,” announced some one, sounding, and the coral grated harshly under our keel. A moment more and the launch might be too late.
But just then came another flash out of the gloom, so near that we were startled, a shrill whistle, and the rescuing party was at hand. Very hurriedly the passengers were transferred to the Burnside, Jr., and the Hilda was towed to a safe anchorage, where she was left for the night.
The ride back to the ship was a long one, and we struck a tide-rip half-way there, which drenched us all to the skin and tossed the staunch little craft back and forth, as if she had been a chip on the water. But at eleven o’clock we climbed aboard the Burnside, after having given the Powers-that-Be and our many friends a fright which made them threaten us with the brig if it ever happened again.
Fortunately for us, our first rocket had been seen from the ship, else the launch might have been too late to rescue us, and what we had taken for a gleam from the search-light was in fact a Coston signal, our distance from the Burnside not enabling us to distinguish its red and blue lights, the white alone carrying that far.
A good dinner, finished long after midnight, so rested us that, being young and foolish, we went ashore with our host of the afternoon, merely for a farewell glimpse of Bongao, retiring at ever so little o’clock in the morning, and not very long before the engines began to puff and pant, preparatory to our trip northward.
Then followed a month of cable repairing, which took us again to Zamboanga, Iligan, and Cagayan. A little stretch was also laid connecting Oslob, Cebu, with the Dumaguete land line, and later a cable laid nearly two years before on the southeast coast of Luzon was thoroughly overhauled and put into shape. This cable connected Pasacao and Guinayangan, or Pass-a-cow and Grin-again-then, as we always dubbed the towns.
It was on our way to Pasacao from Iligan that we had our last glimpse of old Mount Malindang, or, as the sailors called it, Mount Never Pass, because it was so seldom off our horizon. All day the sea had been oily smooth, and fish jumped out of the water continually, the sea-gulls swooping down upon them and carrying them off in their talons. The sailors had been holy-stoning the decks and painting every bit of available woodwork white, preparatory to our entrance into Manila Bay, and the cable machinery for the nonce was still, the native employees lounging about the lower decks, playing monte or strumming their guitars in idle joy.
At sunset we all went aft to see Malindang for the last time. To the southeast it stood stolidly against the flushed sky, a white cloud about it, reminding one of some old Indian chief wrapped in his blanket, passively watching the departure of the palefaces who had invaded his mighty solitude. To the north were Negros, Cebu, and Siquijor; to the south Mindanao; and even far-distant Camaguin to the east, with a faint wisp of smoke from its volcano. Then night came upon us suddenly and blotted out Mount Never Pass — perhaps forever.
After our experiences in the far south, we found Oslob, Pasacao, and Guinayangan strangely uninteresting, although at the beginning of our cable trip I have no doubt we should have enjoyed them hugely. There were the same curious natives who dogged our every footstep; the same nipa shacks surrounded by palms and bamboos in the same dazzling sunshine, of which no words or symbols or formulas could give one an idea. There were the inevitable churches with decorations of faded artificial flowers and much tarnished tinsel, the same wooden images with large eyes and simpering little mouths, the same glaring chromos of the Virgin and her angels.
In Oslob the church was further decorated by brown velvet portières being painted at each side of the long windows, an obvious advantage in the event of housecleaning, while the wooden pillars were also stained to resemble marble. At the time of our visit women knelt on the bare floor at their prayers, all wearing stiffly starched white linen veils, which did not entirely conceal their fleshly interest in ourselves, the while they told their rosaries with busy fingers.
Guinayangan had a wooden belfry to one side of its church, the bells therein being made of metal arms captured from the Moros many years before. We also noticed, on entering the church, a palanquin shaped affair at one side of the door. This, we were told, was used by the priest in processions, when altar boys dressed in scarlet and white robes carry him thus enthroned, two other boys walking ahead of the procession and two behind, all bearing candles in candelabra taller than themselves, and all dressed in scarlet and white like the bearers of the palanquin. It was used as well for a confessional, and to carry the priest to and from visits of extreme unction.
Guinayangan also boasts a shipyard, which is nothing more than a rough shed, the implements being most primitive in construction. Without even ways, not to mention the absence of means, it is said that large sailing ships are made there, two of them being in the harbour at the time of our visit.
For several days we hovered in the vicinity of Guinayangan and Pasacao, cutting and splicing, splicing and cutting, while we idle ones of the quarter-deck unanimously decided that this lower corner of Luzon Island comprised the prettiest landscapes we had seen on the trip, consisting for the main part of wonderful mountains covered with a luxurious tropical growth of trees and shrubbery, these perpendicular forests springing out of the water with scarcely any intervention of beach between their green sides and the sparkling sea beneath them.
In places the mountains were bare of trees, suggesting forest fires in the past, but in the distant past, as the patches of ground were covered with grass, the exact tender shade in which the young Spring clothes herself at home. In many of these rifts between the trees nipa houses were tucked away, adding to the charm of the landscape, and the multifarious shades of green to be found on these hillsides were further diversified by shrub-like trees with a faint red tinge like furze, and by still others with a silvery sheen to their leaves.
It was while paying this long-laid line into the tanks, when looking for faults, that wonderful sea growths were brought up on the cable, especially in comparatively shallow water, revealing varieties of submarine life undreamed of in our philosophy. There was white coral, and coral in shades of pink, and red, and violet; there were sea-cucumbers and jellyfish; shrimp of tiny proportions and scarlet in colouring; barnacles of every description; curious shells of fairy-like proportions; seaweeds and grasses and moss of exquisite delicacy, making the cable look in places as if it were a rope of tiny many coloured blossoms. The small girl of the Burnside was enchanted with the pretty playthings sent her by the mermaids, and gathered the gaily tinted wonders into a box for safe-keeping, but before the passing of another day they had lost their beauty, and, moreover, smelled up to very heaven, and had to be thrown overboard.
But at last the Signal Corps completed its work on the Pasacao-Guinayangan cable, the final splice was made, and the bight dropped overboard, whereupon we were off for Manila, stopping en route at Pasacao to ascertain if all were well with the line. This was on Good Friday, and the officers who went ashore said that natives, dressed to represent the Twelve Apostles, roamed the streets and at given intervals flagellated one poor chap who had been elected to represent Judas for the time being. The native padre assisted in the semi-religious function, and all seemed more interested in it as a diversion than impressed by its devotional significance.
The rest of the day we sailed over absolutely peaceful water, with scarcely a ripple on its crystal surface, swinging in and out of the myriad wooded islands, peninsulas, and capes that make the southern part of Luzon so ragged and uneven on the map, and thence into the China Sea, where we floated, sky above and sky below, for hours, anchoring off Manila on the following forenoon, just in time to spend Easter Sunday, April 7th, at the capital.
And so ended our cable trip and those pleasant days in the far South Seas. The huge tanks on the forward deck of the Burnside yawned hungrily for the five hundred knots of cable now lying in those distant waters, linking together the strange lands we had seen en route, and as we stood for the last time looking down into those empty tanks, tar-stained and reeking with moisture, I was strongly reminded of Mr. Kipling’s “Song of the Cable:”