I was very anxious and greatly relieved to be about to set my feet again on solid ground. The voyage from Bremerhaven seemed to have started ages ago when it was winter and I had barely enough clothing to keep myself warm. As we sailed through the Mediterranean to Naples it became comfortable; everything past Suez was near unbearable. We were warned before we left about the heat and were advised to choose our clothing so as not to become casualties of it. 'Wear what is essential to maintain a respectful appearance,' our Mother Superior said. I would not have dared wear nothing at all under my habit except that my partner in this adventure, my dear sister in Christ, Sister Eva went along with it. Being only a few days past the beginning of summer made no difference at all, I was told. It was always hot.
As we proceeded down the gangplank she gave me a smirk and slight tilt of her head in the direction of the young porter who was carrying our two larger bags. He was a good-looking young man who had come to our door to ask if we were ready to go ashore. More than once he had stopped to chat with us on the way from Singapore, as if we were ordinary young ladies and not Sisters. He was either very friendly or entertained thoughts that . . . I shouldn't judge him for what had crossed my own mind; fleetingly, very fleetingly I must say.
"Thank you, Hans," I said as he put our bags down. "It has been very nice of you to take time to speak with us as often as you did."
"I'm very glad that we got to know each other a bit. Will you be able to manage from here?"
"Yes, we'll be fine. Thanks again."
I extended my hand to him and he reluctantly shook it, but extended it then to Sister Eva. He murmured some sort of good-bye and hastily retreated to the ship. We were amused at his behavior but it was not new to us.
We were at present waiting on the dock in a place called Simpsonhafen on the island of Neu Pommern, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The Matupi, the small steamer from Norddeutcher Lloyd that brought us here from Singapore, looked colossal compared to the ship berthed next to it that would bring us to our final destination, Kaiser Wilhelmsland in German New Guinea. We were told that we had the whole day to enjoy land before we set sail again in the morning for Alexishafen on the north coast, two day's sailing.
It felt strange being so far from home and yet meeting people here who spoke my language. When we found out where we were being sent we conjured up images of the Pacific from what we had read or heard. Tahiti or Hawaii seemed to be typical but this place was a bit of a disappointment. We enjoyed seeing the faces of those we told of our destination. I can still see my mother's face on the day Sister Eva and I left the convent in Steyl in the Netherlands. This was the furthest she and Eva's mother had ever traveled and the only time either of them had been outside Germany. I know that she thought that she would never see me again and for the most part I believed that she was correct. She had decided that now, since all her children were out on their own, that when she returned home she would live with my brother Philipp and his family, my father having died two years earlier.
"Renate, are we to stand here all day?" Sister Eva asked.
"We should find someone to put our luggage aboard the Gabriel," I replied, referring to the small ship that would take us to our new home.
"I feel abandoned; couldn't someone come to meet us? Let's find a Gasthaus and at least get a drink of water."
"Eva, look around. We would do well to find a shady place to sit. Gasthaus? Really, Eva. Someone will come looking for us, you'll see."
"I should think so. Can we leave our things here without them being stolen and find someplace to go."
"I think so; I'll ask one of these men."
"A colored? Do you think he speaks German?"
"I don't know," I said and approached one of the workers. "Please, do you speak German?"
"Of course, my lady. Can I help you?"
"God be thanked, yes. We want to leave our luggage here and find a place to rest until we board the Gabriel. Do you know of a place?"
"Yes, my lady. Just there," he pointed to a large building in the distance, behind a grove of trees. "All the Sisters live there."
"Will our things be safe here?"
"Certainly; we are not a pack of thieves here, don't you know?"
"Excuse me, I didn't mean to imply anything. We're new here and I . . . Well, thank you for your help."
Sister Eva was shaking her head in amazement, surprised as was I that one of these colored men would speak German.
"So, My Lady, maybe he should have called you Fräulein. I guess he didn't think that you were really a Sister."
"Oh, come on. Let's go to the convent. Don't worry about the luggage."
With some misgivings she trusted that our things would be safe. A wide tree-lined avenue led into the town but we made our way along what was no more than a dirt path to the convent. It turned out to be a very well made building with real glass windows; I really hadn't thought about what our new home might look like. We would do well to live in a place like this. Our knock at the door was answered by a colored woman wearing a plain white sleeveless dress that ended at her knees, and a blue apron.
"Come in Sisters. Mother was expecting you. Please wait here while I fetch her." The girl scurried off.
"Do they all speak German," Sister Eva asked.
"Perhaps; we have been here more than thirty years."
"We who? The Order or the Germans?"
"The Germans, silly. Our Order didn't send anyone here until 1899.
We casually walked around the downstairs, looking in rooms that had their doors open. The kitchen was immaculate; the dining room sat twelve on benches and two on chairs. The chapel had four pews that could accommodate twenty.
"Oh, there you are." A very spry Mother Superior approached us briskly. "Welcome to Rabaul. I'm Mother Maria Helena."
"Grüß Gott, Mother. I am Sister Eva Maria."
"Grüß Gott, Mother. I am Sister Renate Maria."
"Oh, my God, my God! You're only children. Have you seen twenty years yet?"
"I will be twenty in September and Sister Eva in December."
Mother put her hands under my coif and pushed it back to see the length of my hair.
"You came straight from the convent, didn't you?"
"Yes, we read about the Holy Spirit Sisters when we were still in school and decided that we would become missionaries."
"I don't think you could have made a better choice. Sometimes it will be very hard but every day there will be something to rejoice about. Do you know where you're going yet?"
"Alexishafen. Is that a nice place?"
"Oh, yes but you won't be staying there. Father Limbrock moved the SVD headquarters there and all new arrivals go there first. More than likely he'll send you to a new mission. Don't worry; they'll send some soldiers along for protection."
"Is it that dangerous?"
"No, no, my dears. There was one . . . one time there was a rumor about the natives wanting to kill off the whites but nothing ever came of it. I didn't frighten you, did I?"
She did, a little. Sister Eva and I both shook our heads.
"Good. Where is your luggage?"
"We left it on the dock. We gave up trying to find someone to take it aboard the Gabriel."
"Ach, you must stay here tonight, it will be so much nicer."
She hurried off toward the rear of the building shouting for someone named Katrina. Presently she returned to explain that she had sent the girl to the dock with a mule cart to fetch our luggage.
"Right after our noon meal we will get you some new clothing. You must be ready to faint from the heat with those European habits. We will supply you with one new one and enough material to make others."
I had hoped as much. The white and blue cotton habit worn by Mother Superior looked so much lighter and cooler; its length ended at her boot tops and without a coif the front of her neck was exposed. It didn't look a bit immodest; it was a practical necessity. She invited us to inspect the convent and the garden as we waited and then left us to attend to her duties.
Sister Eva and I were treated as guests at the noonday meal; I'm sure that if we stayed more than one day we would be given chores to do like everyone else. After the meal Mother Superior handed Sister Eva and I over to Sister Gunde and a colored girl named Betam. Sister brought us upstairs to the sewing room to fit us for our new habits.
"So, Sisters, come on. Take those blankets off so that I can measure you."
"Sister Gunde, could we go to our rooms first? We'll only be a minute."
"Is there a problem?"
"Well, you see . . . it was so hot and we were told . . . well we took it to mean that we could wear . . . or not wear . . ."
"You're naked, is that it? Under this you're naked?" She grabbed at my habit just at my hip, and pulled it.
"Yes, Sister." Sister Eva and I stared at the floor, ashamed.
"What were you thinking? Are you idiots? Go, go quickly. My God, my God, what is the world coming to?
Betam began to laugh quietly.
"You think this is amusing?" Sister Gunde chided her.
Betam was quickly silenced as Sister Eva and I rushed off to our rooms to put on our underclothes. Sister Gunde's mood was not the least improved when we returned without our outer garments but she silently proceeded with her work. She produced two new habits that fit us very well without alterations and supplied each of us with enough material to make two more. We went to our rooms and spent some time in meditation then passed the rest of the afternoon cutting patterns and loosely stitching the garments together. Betam came and went seeing to our needs when her other duties allowed it.
One time when she had some time to spare she sat with us and asked about the possibility of her becoming a sister in our order. My immediate reaction, I am ashamed to say, was suspicion of her motives. As far as any of us knew, that would entail her going to Europe to a convent. That this colored girl could have that degree of commitment seemed strange to me. How did she overcome her heritage of devilish practices and wantonness? How horrible of me to think that way but I knew nothing else than what I had been told of this part of the world.
That evening at Vespers I sought her out to encourage her and to remind her that our God would certainly honor her commitment. I found sleep elusive that night thinking of her in a habit as my equal. I did not have this prejudice before and the fact that I knew it was wrong did not make it go away. Oh, God, how weak and sinful I am.
The next morning seemed quite normal with some Sister knocking on my door to ensure that I had risen. I opened it to demonstrate that I was indeed awake and she supplied a flame to light my lamp. Lauds, then Mass and then breakfast were all torturously slow; I had finally generated excitement about my destiny and longed to continue to the end of our journey. Katrina took three of us to the dock on the mule cart. One of two Sisters that had recently returned from a place called Kavieng, where they had served for a year, accompanied us. Her name was Sister Ursula and she had been in the colony for almost twenty-four years. What wonderful stories she shared with us!
I was surprised at all the people that were there before us, loading supplies onto the Gabriel. There was a priest who was supervising the transfer of some very large crates taken directly from the hold of the Matupi. Katrina helped us unload our luggage and bade us Godspeed. We waited like lost sheep for someone to rescue us. After a half hour of waiting, the priest came to us and introduced himself.
"Grüß Gott, Sisters. I am Father Theodor. You must be Sister Ursula; we all heard about your imminent return to Alexishafen.
"Grüß Gott, Father. I had no idea that anyone would think me worthy of notice. I must say that I'm glad to be back. I think my young traveling companions are just as anxious as I to reach our destination."
"Grüß Gott, Father Theodor, I am Sister Eva Maria."
"Grüß Gott, Father Theodor, I am Sister Renate Maria."
"Well, it is certainly a great pleasure to meet you both. I believe that we will be working together at our newest mission."
"Where would that be, Father?" Sister Ursula asked.
"It doesn't have a proper name yet but it is the camp that Dallmann established more than twenty-five years ago on the Empress Augusta River. There has been much interest and exploration there in the last year."
"On the Sepik, Father? I've heard that it is no more than a long swamp." Sister Ursula's remark was discouraging.
"Oh, it's not as bad as you go upstream a bit. Father Limbrock and I went six months ago to consider the suitability of the site. It was being used then as the base camp for a scientific and geographic expedition. The last of them should be leaving as we arrive."
"When will that be, Father," I asked.
"Within days, I should imagine. We were waiting for your arrival to make the mission complete, and also the sawmill, of course." He waved his hand toward the Gabriel, indicating, I suppose, the large crate that was now hidden from view.
Sister Eva and I had learned early on that once an SVD mission had become established it was expected to be self-sufficient and also eventually commercially profitable. Everyone chosen to go to one needed more than one skill. We were firstly teachers, both of reading and writing and the Catechism. If required we could do all our own sewing, cooking, butchering, gardening, basket making, etc. We knew how to make soap, candles, ink, leather . . . and more.
"Are you the one who will operate the mill, Father?"
"Perhaps sometimes, but sometimes a millwright, carpenter, farmer, railroad builder and priest. I'm not sure which will demand most of my time."
Father Theodor stared seaward, absently. It was obvious that he was anxious to get under way; I was beginning to feel something also, the excitement of the challenge, my fulfillment.
"Are you ready to go aboard?" he suddenly asked. "There's no hurry, we won't sail until midday."
"I'd like to go aboard," Sister Ursula said, "before I have no other room to go to than the one next to the engine room."
"There will be only eight passengers aboard and there are twelve cabins. Those facing the dock will be cooler in the afternoon, so if you go now you will be sure to get them. One on the opposite side is already reserved for Herr Schlettwein, the Governor's advisor."
We looked at each other and with slight nods agreed.
"Take your small bag and leave it on the bed," Sister Ursula said. "Then we can either come back and get the rest by ourselves or find a porter."
I took my small bag that held my few books and photographs, and personal items, and started for the Gabriel. Sister Ursula, in the lead, encountered a ship's hand and pointed out our luggage. He said that he would send a porter to fetch it. My cabin was small but I liked it; it reminded me of my room at the convent. A bed, a small chest of drawers, a washstand and a canvas deck chair were all there was. I took out the photograph of my family and looked at it. My mother and father and four brothers and two sisters . . . and me, and nine nephews and seven nieces . . . would I ever see any of them again?
My youngest brother was standing behind me; we were the only two in the photograph that had even the slightest hint of a smile. He had just teased me about the photographer's son who had approached him and asked about me. He told the boy that he would ask me if I was interested and if I were that I would smile when his father took the photograph. I had to bite my cheeks; he was very handsome but I had already made up my mind to give that up. Just like so many other boys . . . sometimes I wonder if . . .
A knock on my door brought me back to the present. It was the porter; he brought my luggage into the cabin.
"Would you like some coffee, Sister?"
"Malt coffee or real coffee?"
"Real coffee; it grows not too far from here."
"Oh, yes. That would be wonderful."
"Go to the end of the hallway and down to the lower deck. Just follow the aroma. The cook made some not ten minutes ago. I think there is another Sister there already."
I hurried down and found both Sister Ursula and Mother Maria Helena enjoying a cup. I had no sooner entered the galley when the cook brought me a cup also. I was barely seated when Sister Eva arrived.
"A vow of poverty doesn't exclude simple pleasures," Mother said.
This was so good. All we ever had on the Matupi was malt coffee and it wasn't fit to drink. Oh, how good this was; if there weren't a Mother Superior with me I would have thought my pleasure was sinful.
"Thank God for the Dutch," Mother sighed, "They grow this in Sumatra. I knew there would be some on the Gabriel when I learned that Herr Schlettwein and Dr. Wick would be on board. I think that the Governor paid for their passage with it."
"And so I did, Reverend Mother. I see that not very much gets by you or was that only a guess?"
We all jumped up to our feet, a bit guilty for drinking someone else's coffee. Besides the speaker there were three other men, all dressed in white suits.
"Governor! Please excuse the liberty. I think it a bit wicked of you to place so great a temptation in our way but I will pray for you . . . to do it again, of course."
"Grüß Gott, Reverend Mother. You know that once that coffee came on board that you and anyone else in the clergy and crew were welcome to it. Sister Ursula, how good to see you again. How are you?"
"Thank you, Your Excellency. I am well; my absence seems so far away now."
"And these are the new arrivals?" The Governor stood in front of us.
"Yes," Mother said. "Sisters Eva Maria and Renate Maria, may I present His Excellency, Governor Hahl."
Sister Eva and I curtseyed and took one of the Governor's extended hands.
"Our God and our Fatherland both thank you for your dedication, Sisters. I pray that your time here will be fruitful and rewarding."
We mumbled our thanks.
"Allow me to introduce Dr. Willie Wick who will be attending to your medical needs for a while. He will be replacing Dr. Külz who is with that expedition on the Sepik, Dr. Gustav Bredemann, our botanist, and Herr Emil Kempf, our forestry advisor. It is in all our interests to see that this endeavor is successful; this will be the first permanent settlement in the interior. The Kaiser himself asked to be notified as to your progress. I have already authorized a second settlement to be established 80 kilometers upriver from the first. We expect to learn much from your experiences there."
"Thank you for your confidence, Your Excellency. We will not disappoint you," Sister Eva said.
We won't? I wondered where her confidence sprang from.
"Very good," said the Governor. "Now, let us get to the coffee. Cookie, bring out the pastries."
We had a wonderful time getting acquainted with the men who would be at our settlement. I was very much impressed with Governor Hahl; he felt that Christianity was the rock on which to base a successful colony. He assured us that he would do what he could to insure that the Mission prospered. I felt a bit more secure after listening to him speak so enthusiastically about the settlement.
Herr Schlettwein did not show up until minutes before we sailed and spent the whole time in his cabin, even having his meals brought to him. Dr. Wick said that this was the way he was and not to give it another thought. I especially enjoyed Dr. Wick's humor; he always had a funny story to tell that left one wondering whether or not it was true. He also was the only one, other than a few members of the crew, to join Sister Eva, Sister Ursula, Father Theodor and me in the galley for Mass.
At sea, we did not make progress as expected. When we finally arrived at Alexishafen it was after sunset on the second day so we anchored offshore until morning. Sister Eva and I were on deck when the sun came up. The first rays of light illuminated the hills behind the town and slowly worked down to the harbor. The land was so green, as far as we could see, East to West and to the tops of the hills, everything was green.
As soon as we were docked, Father Limbrock came aboard and gave Sister Ursula a big hug; they were both very joyous. Father Theodor got a slap on the back and a handshake and Sister Eva and I got a pat on the hand. Father Limbrock said a prayer of thanksgiving for our safe arrival and we all disembarked for a while. A porter put Sister Ursula's luggage in a cart where she met her Mother Superior; I think her name was Fridolina. Even Herr Schlettwein came off the boat, supposedly on business, according to Dr. Wick.
When Father Limbrock heard about the coffee, he suggested that we all have breakfast aboard the Gabriel. I don't know where Dr. Bredemann and Herr Kempf went but they returned just before noon, as we were getting ready to sail once more. At the last minute Herr Schlettwein returned with a colored girl of about my age who was wearing European style clothing and a wide brimmed straw hat instead of the usual one-piece dress that the other colored women wore.
When Herr Schlettwein hurried aboard leaving the woman and her luggage on the dock I realized that she had, perhaps, not arrived with him but had merely showed up at the same time. A porter seemed to ignore her request for help so I went to assist her. She was very beautiful, for a colored girl; her skin was not as dark as the rest of her people.
"Can I help you with your bags, Fräulein?"
"Thank you. That is so kind of you. I am Frau Rosa Seitz."
I was speechless for some moments, both because of who she said she was and her accent. It was Plattdeutsch, unmistakably. Where did she learn German?
"I am Renate Maria Luttig . . . Sister Renate," I corrected myself.
"I very much appreciate your help. I was told that there were several vacant cabins. Do you know which they are?"
"Yes, Frau Seitz. It seems that all five men chose cabins on one side and we three women were on the other."
When we were on the deck she stopped me.
"Please don't call me Frau Seitz; we are the same age. If you call me Rosa I will call you Renate. Is that agreeable?" She smiled so pleasantly.
Only Sister Eva called me Renate and only when no one else was present. Rosa was so mysterious . . . and friendly . . . and beautiful. Not just for a colored girl, she was beautiful no matter what color her skin was.
"Yes, that is agreeable, Rosa. Will you be joining us at the new mission?"
"For a time, perhaps a year. My husband is Lieutenant Seitz; he is in charge of the military detachment assigned to insure the safety of the civilians there."
So, that explained the 'Frau Seitz' but not the rest. I looked into the cabin next to mine that Sister Ursula had occupied. She had stripped the bed and laid out clean bedding, so I put Rosa there. I was bursting with curiosity but it wasn't any of my business, and I turned to go.
"Renate, wait. It's almost cruel to let you leave with so many questions left unasked."
"Was it so obvious? I'm sorry, I didn't want to pry."
"Most everyone in the colony knows a little about me, a lot of what they think they know is a lie. Better you should hear it from me. Sit for a minute."
We could hear the sounds of the ship getting under way. I sat.
"My father is Wilhelm Scharn from Leer in Niedersachsen. He was an administrator who was with the Dallmann expedition. My mother is a Buna; her name was Bikop. Where we are going is very near to where she was born. When the expedition was over they moved up the coast to Aitape where I was born. When I was twelve years old my father was sent back to Germany; he chose not to take us with him. My mother had no means or skills, only to keep house and found that it was very difficult to provide for us. Reluctantly she . . . well, there is no other way to say it − she became a prostitute. That kept us fed and clothed for three years and then she was murdered one night by a drunken soldier. The Sisters at the mission took me in and I worked for a Sister Traudel as a kitchen helper. She liked me because she's from Wilhelmshaven and she spoke the same dialect as my father."
"There are many who think I followed my mother's trade and some liars who will swear that they were a client of mine. But none of that is true. I was a virgin when I met Hansel and if he's the only one who believes it, that is enough. I have been trying to change my accent. How am I doing?"
"Rosa, I have never been to Leer or Wilhelmshaven but I've been to Bremerhaven and I would swear that you were born there."
"That bad, eh? Well, I'll keep working at it. When I want to I can put on another accent but it sounds so funny coming from me. Where are you from?"
"Sister Eva and I are both from Marienberg, in the other Saxony."
Whatever her other accent was it couldn't be funnier than Plattdeutsch.
Dr. Wick's face appeared in the open door.
"Lunch in ten minutes. How's it going Rosa? Nice to see you again."
"It's going well, Willie. It will be better soon."
"Does the Lieutenant know you're coming?"
"Yes, but not the day."
"Ahhh," the doctor rolled his eyes up.
"Don't say it Willie."
"Me? A perfect gentleman like myself? Come on, let's eat."
As we made our way to the galley I admired how informal Rosa was with the doctor . . . and me. I liked her.
The seven of us sat for the meal (Herr Schlettwein again took his meal in his cabin) with Sister Eva being the last to arrive. Rosa extended her hand across the table to her.
"How are you? I am Frau Rosa Seitz; I'll be staying at the new mission site for a while."
Sister Eva hesitated for a brief moment before she shook her hand. She must have figured that Seitz was her married name and, if she was like me, the hesitation was because she didn't want to call someone so young a frau.
"Nice to meet you, Rosa. I'm Sister Eva. What will you be doing at the mission?"
"Oh, I don't know. Paperwork, correspondence . . . maybe some cooking. You know, there are so many dialects in German that it makes it easy to tell where one is from. I would say that you are from Saxony. Is that right?"
I'm sure she couldn't have known it from the few words that Sister Eva spoke, but only because I told her. I sensed that she was up to something.
"Yes, that's true," Sister Eva replied, a bit surprised, a bit curious.
"Can you tell where I'm from?"
I almost laughed. Rosa was practicing her new accent: pure Berliner. I noticed Dr. Wick restraining a laugh also.
"It sounds like you are from Berlin," Sister Eva said, quite confused.
Dr. Wick could hold it in no longer and burst out laughing. Sister Eva was embarrassed that someone was playing a joke on her.
"Come on Rosa; let her hear what you really sound like," Dr. Wick managed to say between chuckles.
"Well, let me go all the way and recite something my father taught me. It goes like this:
Soll ik mal mien Freesland laten,
Bürgt mi in freeskeken Sand,
Dat mien doode Hand kann faten,
Noch een Stück Oostfreesenland"
"Is that German?" Sister Eva asked. "It sounds more like Dutch."
By now everyone in the galley was laughing.
"Well, I didn't understand half of it. What does it mean?" Sister Eva complained.
I didn't understand half of it either but I was enjoying Sister Eva's confusion. I think that Rosa was making a point before it became an issue, that one shouldn't be judged on outward appearances because one may not be what one seems.
"If I was from Berlin I would say:
Should I ever leave my Friesland,
Bury me in Frisian sand,
So that my dead hand can hold,
Yet a piece of East Friesenland."
"So, you are from Ostfriesland then?" Sister Eva asked, and the laughter increased.
I thought Sister Eva's embarrassment was going too far but I didn't want to be the one to explain it to her. That would make me look like I was a party to this when I had no idea at all what Rosa was up to.
"My dear, I was born here and I have never been anywhere in my whole life other than German New Guinea. I'm just a local girl whose mother was a bit darker than yours but I grew up speaking German just like you. Did you think that I was something else?"
"No . . . well, yes but . . ."
"But I was the wrong color. Are we not all God's children?"
Sister Eva had no answer. It wasn't fair of Rosa to turn her unique situation into a test for prejudice. I thought that she might be trying to prove her equality or perhaps superiority. Being able to speak two dialects of German proved nothing. I wondered if she could understand Latin.
After the meal Sister Eva and I brought our folding chairs to the deck at the bow and watched the coastline slip by. Presently Rosa joined us, and placing her chair directly in front of Sister Eva, took hold of her hand.
"Eva, we will be the only women at the mission. There will be times that we will need to depend on one another. Please don't hesitate to call on me; I will be more than willing to help. I speak the Buna language but not well. Perhaps I could assist you when you have some young girls to teach. Yes?"
Sister Eva was staring at her hand. Other than the polite handshake earlier, this was her first real contact with brown skin. She grasped Rosa's hand with both of hers.
"Yes, that would be good. I'm glad that you are here with us; you will be a great help."
Rosa extended her other hand to me and I held it in mine. Her skin seemed to have a different feel than white skin; I seemed to be more aware of her touch. I thought that somehow the differences between us went beyond the outward appearances. There was a deeper . . . there was a strangeness that made me feel uncomfortable. Rosa smiled at me; I smiled back. I was surprised that Sister Eva said nothing about Rosa calling her by her name in front of me.
The three of us passed the afternoon on deck sharing details about our birthplaces. Sister Eva and I did most of the talking; Rosa told us about the small community of Buna tribesmen that were taken to Aitape because they spoke some German and had learned skills that could be used there. Everything else that Rosa shared was about growing up in a German household in a German community.
Just as we finished our evening meal I noticed that the engines had stopped. A small launch was coming alongside and we all hurried to the deck to see what was happening. A man in a naval uniform boarded and went to see the Captain. A crewman went into the cabin area and returned with Herr Schlettwein who got on the launch with the seaman. They left immediately and we all wondered what was happening. The Gabriel's engines restarted and we slowly made our way toward shore where we anchored.
"Ah, good people, you are all here," the Captain said as he came on deck where we waited. "Yet another delay but this one is for our safety. We cannot go up the Sepik until tomorrow morning; the Kormoran will be coming downstream to anchor in the estuary. We dare not attempt to pass her going the other way without daylight. We probably could not have made it to the camp before dark anyway."
"Captain, please, what is the Kormoran?" I asked.
"It's an Imperial warship, a light cruiser," he answered. "It will be taking some military personnel and government people back to Rabaul."
"Where did Herr Schlettwein go?" Sister Eva asked.
"His presence was requested by the captain of the Kormoran on government business. We will retrieve him tomorrow when we come alongside it. We will get under way right after breakfast. So, everyone, enjoy the rest of the evening."
We stood around for a while making conversation but then I left. In my cabin, getting ready for bed, I prayed about the feelings and emotions that I had which were inconsistent with my calling. I had questions about my suitability to perform my vocation. I should have sought out Father Theodor to hear my confession but I wasn't clear about what it was that I had done. It can wait; maybe tomorrow it will all change. Sister Eva came into my cabin and we recited Compline together. I slept well.
She woke me in the morning with a knock on my door. She came in and waited while I dressed. We recited our devotions together and then she thanked God for sending Rosa to us, to give us a means to communicate with the Buna women and girls. I mumbled my concurrence . . . to that much, at least. We hurried down to the galley; Father Theodor would be celebrating Mass just before breakfast. I was surprised to see so many strange men there; this was the whole crew. Some coloreds, some Malays, a Chinaman . . . and Dr. Wick.
The others showed up after we had finished. Perhaps it was the aroma of the coffee drifting up the stairs to the cabins that signaled them that they could safely come to breakfast without hearing anything about God; and it was Sunday besides. Well, they might not be Catholics; I never asked.
Halfway through the meal Rosa entered the galley. I was stunned by her change in appearance; she was not wearing the straw hat that she wore yesterday and had taken her hair out of the bun, letting it fall over her shoulders. It was brown and curly, not black and frizzy like the coloreds. She wore a jumper that looked as though it was from the same fabric that our new habits were made from, but it ended at her knees. Under that she wore a white cotton blouse.
"Good morning, Rosa," Dr. Wick greeted her. "You look beautiful today. Do you think the Lieutenant knows by now?"
"Someone else knew that we were here. I think that I will still surprise him though. We will see."
"How long has it been since you saw him last?" I asked.
"Twenty-two days, but that is the lot of an army wife. I can't wait to see him again. I'm so excited."
It had been months since I saw my family and I might never see any of them again, but that is the lot of a missionary Sister. I can't wait to see this man who would marry a colored girl, beautiful or not. I'll wager he is ugly or old; maybe his face is scarred from battle.
Oh, Renate, let it go! Why are you bitter that this young woman is so happy with the man she loves?
Later, on deck, as we were getting under way, Father Theodor pointed out to us the dark color of the water.
"We are still a half hour's sailing from the mouth of the Sepik but this is fresh water, probably drinkable."
We all stayed on deck, anxious to finally see this river. After passing a point of land we entered a broad estuary and proceeded for another half-hour until someone said that this was the river. I would have thought that it was an extension of the sea. The river made a turn to our right and revealed the Kormoran, anchored but pointing upstream.
Dr. Wick explained it had turned to anchor against the current and that it was a good test of its captain's skill to bring it about without grounding it. As we were about to tie to the platform at the bottom of the ship's ladder, a sailor called to us through a megaphone to back away and hold our position. On the Kormoran's deck an officer saluted Herr Schlettwein who then came down the ladder and got into the launch. It brought him the few meters to the Gabriel.
"Who is he?" Sister Eva asked no one in particular.
"The Governor's assistant," Father Theodor said, unsurely.
Dr. Bredemann snorted. "Sure!" he said sarcastically.
Dr. Wick wagged his finger at us, tilting his head a bit, to caution against speculation. "He's a Berliner; he could be anybody."
Once Herr Schlettwein was safely aboard we started up river. Three hours later we berthed at a pier that was no more than some logs lashed together and stuck into the riverbed. An old steamer was also berthed there and was being loaded by a small crew of men, white and colored. It was such a sad looking ship; it must have seen better days many years earlier. It was badly in need of paint and its name was not legible. If I guessed at the missing letters it would probably be "Kolonialgesellschaft." Too long a name; no wonder they didn't repaint it.
Father Theodor said we would be sleeping aboard the Gabriel for about five days until quarters could be built for us. I wondered what they could build in just a few days.
"If you want to come ashore and look around bring an umbrella. A rain shower could happen at anytime."
We went back to our cabins to get them. On my way back out as I pushed open the door that led to the deck, a man was pulling on it.
"Is Rosa Seitz aboard?"
God in heaven, he was beautiful! Before I could answer, Rosa called out from her cabin doorway right behind me.
"Hansel, I'm here!"
The man brushed past me without a word.
"Schatzi, oh, Schatzi"
He took her in his arms and kissed her, a very long kiss. I couldn't help myself; I had to watch. Rosa was facing me with her eyes closed. My gaze was riveted to her mouth pressing against his. Suddenly she opened an eye and looked right at me then quickly closed it. Her hands slid down to his buttocks and she pulled him closer. I went out onto the deck.
How could he do that? I know he loves her but . . . I watched as one of the colored men went up the ramp of the other ship with a bundle on his shoulder. I tried to imagine myself kissing his black lips and a spasm of disgust shook me. Oh, God, I'm so wretched; I'm so sinful.
"Did you see?" Sister Eva asked when she came through the door.
I nodded and smiled weakly.
"I know what . . ." she stopped abruptly. "I shouldn't be talking like that. Come on, let's go ashore."
We crossed over to the pier and looked around. There were boxes and sacks everywhere waiting to be loaded. A mule cart was coming down a hill with more. Father Theodor was half way up waving to us so we made our way cautiously to where he was. The path was not too steep but it was muddy.
"Everything we build will be on top of the hill," he said. "All our quarters, a school, a church, the kitchen, the sawmill . . . Come, take a look; some of the tents will remain but most will not. It's a bit of a mess right now but the expedition did a lot of our work."
When we reached the top and I looked around, I was filled with despair. Everything was covered with mud; the whole clearing was a mud hole. The stench of human waste filled the air; it was hot and my clothes were sticking to me. The sun was shining but it began to rain lightly; little puddles of water began to collect in the low places in the mud. Father Theodor and Sister Eva moved on leaving me alone. I opened my umbrella and began to cry.
A pair of hands was placed on my shoulders and I turned to see who it was. A young priest with very short hair and wire rimmed glasses, wearing a short sleeved shirt with an ecclesiastic collar and a pair of muddy black trousers stood in front of me.
"Oh, Father," I sobbed, "I want to go home."
He took me by the shoulders and asked, "And where is home, Sister?"
"Hmmm, see me tomorrow; perhaps we can work something out."
I was amazed; was it that easy? The priest walked away and I started down the hill heading back to the Gabriel. When I was near the bottom I saw the Lieutenant coming off the ship; we would have to pass right by one another. The priest's words had given me hope and as I thought about it I became elated. I can leave this place!
"Grüß Gott, Herr Leutnant." I smiled at him, almost laughing. I was so happy.
"Good day, Fräulein," he replied cheerfully and smiled back at me. I imagined that I knew why he was in such a good mood. I continued on, dismissing thoughts about why he called me Fräulein instead of Sister.
Back on the Gabriel I had the choice of cleaning the mud from my habit or finishing the sewing on a new one. Before I made that decision a crewman was knocking on my door announcing lunch. I was hungry but I didn't want to see Rosa and listen to her tell me about her Lieutenant. I hurried to the galley to get my meal and brought it back to my room. I saw no one but the cook.
I locked the door and took off my muddy habit. Thank God our portholes faced the river and not the pier; I opened it to allow what little breeze there was to come into the cabin. I was quite comfortable sitting there like that, in my underclothes, eating lunch. When I was done I got out an unfinished habit and began to make it wearable. Only ten minutes went by when there was a knock on the door. The handle turned as whoever it was chose not to wait for a reply.
"Renate, open the door."
"Are you alone?" I asked with my face to the door.
"Yes, open the door."
I opened it just enough to let her squeeze through. She plopped on my bed.
"You should have heard Rosa at lunch. She didn't say so directly but Dr. Wick did and she didn't deny it."
"She and her Lieutenant . . . they did it in her cabin. Isn't that romantic?"
"Eva . . . never mind. Why don't you ask them if you could watch the next time? If you're so excited just from hearing about it, you'll be absolutely transported by seeing it."
"I was not thinking about that," Sister Eva replied angrily. "It was how much they love each other."
I knew I was wrong. Sister Eva never got mad at me unless I was wrong. She had a boyfriend when she was fifteen so she knew a little of what they felt. I always knew that I would be a nun and never even had a kiss.
"I'm sorry; that wasn't fair of me."
We sat in silence for a minute while she got over it.
"I saw you talking to Father Franz. Were you crying?"
I didn't want to talk about it. Oh, God, what about Eva? I never considered that we had made a pact many years ago, to be missionaries together. At the moment I thought that I wanted to get out of here more than I wanted to be with her. I felt like a traitor; I had talked her into doing this with me.
"I was upset at the way the camp looked. He told me to see him tomorrow, to talk, I suppose."
"Yes, he told me the same thing. He said that he was too busy today to welcome us but that we should come up to his tent after breakfast."
I was hoping that he would speak to us separately. I looked at the bottom of Sister Eva's habit; it was muddier than mine.
"Are you going to clean that or do like me and make another?"
"Yes, I'll join you. I'll be right back"
When Sister Eva got back, the first thing she did was to remove the baste stitching on the hem.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"It is only the bottom two or three centimeters that get muddy, so I'm going to shorten it by that much."
She gave me a look that said she wasn't going to hear any objection. I wouldn't have objected; it was a practical solution to a continuing problem. Besides, who would notice? So, we passed the afternoon in relative coolness in our underclothes and sewed all four new habits.
Rosa was not at supper. Sister Eva and I stayed after the meal and chatted with Herr Kempf and Willie (the Doctor insisted that we call him that). A man that Herr Kempf knew, a Herr Stolle, came aboard from the other ship and put four liters of cold beer on the table; what a treat! Sister Eva and I shared a bottle and said thank you and good night.
I was lying on my bed and was amazed at the stillness: no sounds, no waves, and no wind. I didn't want to leave Sister Eva alone here but I didn't want to be here. What would they do with me? Send me to Alexishafen or Rabaul? That would be acceptable to me; I would get to see her now and then. I considered that perhaps I wanted to be away from Rosa more than I wanted to be away from here. But Rosa would not always be here. What would I do if she moved to where I was? I was forced to admit to myself that it was Rosa more than this place that I disliked. There was no sense in guessing at what Father Franz would offer so I put it out of my head. As I sought to drift off to sleep the thought of the Lieutenant calling me Fräulein came to my remembrance . . . how strange.
I know I was asleep but the sound I heard was not in a dream. I tried to recall it and determine what it was. It was the sound that the latch on my cabin door makes when it is being locked. I sat up and could see very little but enough to know that it was not my door that just locked. I could dimly hear muffled voices coming from Rosa's cabin. I put my ear to the cool steel plate that separated us. The Lieutenant was there; I could hear his voice but not his words. Rosa laughed and then there was nothing.
The scraping sound that followed, I slowly realized, was the bed rubbing against the wall. Rosa started moaning; it got louder. Doesn't she think that I might hear her? I pressed my ear tighter to the wall. When Rosa got even louder I imagined that she was doing it so that I could not help but hear. I put my hand to the wall as if I could know more by doing that. They were only centimeters away from me but in another world. I stared at the wall and in my mind was a picture of them both. I could see Rosa's face; I could almost . . . perhaps more than almost . . . I was experiencing something so strange. The scraping stopped. A long silence was followed by the sound of the latch opening and closing.
I lay back down and was amazed to discover the effects that my eaves dropping had produced. I put on my veil and threw a blanket over my shoulders and went down the hallway to the W.C. to clean myself. When I was back in bed I wondered how such a thing could have happened to me. I smiled and told myself that I would definitely go to confession tomorrow.
Renate, you are such a liar!
Yes, I know.