Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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IT was on the fourth day of the first month of the Hegira, or flight from Tamai (we now reckoned our time thus), that, rising bright and early, we were up and away out of the valley of Hartair before the fishermen even were stirring.

It was the earliest dawn. The morning only showed itself along the lower edge of a bank of purple clouds pierced by the misty peaks of Tahiti. The tropical day seemed too languid to rise. Sometimes, starting fitfully, it decked the clouds with faint edgings of pink and gray, which, fading away, left all dim again. Anon, it threw out thin, pale rays, growing lighter and lighter, until at last, the golden morning sprang out of the East with a bound—darting its bright beams hither and thither, higher and higher, and sending them, broadcast, over the face of the heavens.

All balmy from the groves of Tahiti came an indolent air, cooled by its transit over the waters; and grateful underfoot was the damp and slightly yielding beach, from which the waves seemed just retired.

The doctor was in famous spirits; removing his Koora, he went splashing into the sea; and, after swimming a few yards, waded ashore, hopping, skipping, and jumping along the beach; but very careful to cut all his capers in the direction of our journey.

Say what they will of the glowing independence one feels in the saddle, give me the first morning flush of your cheery pedestrian!

Thus exhilarated, we went on, as light-hearted and care-free as we could wish.

And here I cannot refrain from lauding the very superior inducements which most intertropical countries afford, not only to mere rovers like ourselves, but to penniless people generally. In these genial regions one's wants are naturally diminished; and those which remain are easily gratified; fuel, house-shelter, and, if you please, clothing, may be entirely dispensed with.

How different our hard northern latitudes! Alas! the lot of a "poor devil," twenty degrees north of the tropic of Cancer, is indeed pitiable.

At last, the beach contracted to hardly a yard's width, and the dense thicket almost dipped into the sea. In place of the smooth sand, too, we had sharp fragments of broken coral, which made travelling exceedingly unpleasant. "Lord! my foot!" roared the doctor, fetching it up for inspection, with a galvanic fling of the limb. A sharp splinter had thrust itself into the flesh through a hole in his boot. My sandals were worse yet; their soles taking a sort of fossil impression of everything trod upon.

Turning round a bold sweep of the beach, we came upon a piece of fine, open ground, with a fisherman's dwelling in the distance, crowning a knoll which rolled off into the water.

The hut proved to be a low, rude erection, very recently thrown up; for the bamboos were still green as grass, and the thatching fresh and fragrant as meadow hay. It was open upon three sides; so that, upon drawing near, the domestic arrangements within were in plain sight. No one was stirring; and nothing was to be seen but a clumsy old chest of native workmanship, a few calabashes, and bundles of tappa hanging against a post; and a heap of something, we knew not what, in a dark corner. Upon close inspection, the doctor discovered it to be a loving old couple, locked in each other's arms, and rolled together in a tappa mantle.

"Halloa! Darby!" he cried, shaking the one with a beard. But Darby heeded him not; though Joan, a wrinkled old body, started up in affright, and yelled aloud. Neither of us attempting to gag her, she presently became quiet; and, after staring hard and asking some unintelligible questions, she proceeded to rouse her still slumbering mate.

What ailed him we could not tell; but there was no waking him. Equally in vain were all his dear spouse's cuffs, pinches, and other endearments; he lay like a log, face up, snoring away like a cavalry trumpeter.

"Here, my good woman," said Long Ghost, "just let me try"; and, taking the patient right by his nose, he so lifted him bodily into a sitting position, and held him there until his eyes opened. When this event came to pass, Darby looked round like one stupefied; and then, springing to his feet, backed away into a corner, from which place we became the objects of his earnest and respectful attention.

"Permit me, my dear Darby, to introduce to you my esteemed friend and comrade, Paul," said the doctor, gallanting me up with all the grimace and flourish imaginable. Upon this, Darby began to recover his faculties, and surprised us not a little by talking a few words of English. So far as could be understood, they were expressive of his having been aware that there were two "karhowrees" in the neighbourhood; that he was glad to see us, and would have something for us to eat in no time.

How he came by his English was explained to us before we left. Some time previous, he had been a denizen of Papeetee, where the native language is broidered over with the most classic sailor phrases. He seemed to be quite proud of his residence there; and alluded to it in the same significant way in which a provincial informs you that in his time he has resided in the capital. The old fellow was disposed to be garrulous; but being sharp-set, we told him to get breakfast; after which we would hear his anecdotes. While employed among the calabashes, the strange, antiquated fondness between these old semi-savages was really amusing. I made no doubt that they were saying to each other, "yes, my love"—"no, my life," just in the same way that some young couples do, at home.

They gave us a hearty meal; and while we were discussing its merits, they assured us, over and over again, that they expected nothing in return for their attentions; more: we were at liberty to stay as long as we pleased; and as long as we did stay, their house and everything they had was no longer theirs, but ours; still more: they themselves were our slaves—the old lady, to a degree that was altogether superfluous. This, now, is Tahitian hospitality! Self-immolation upon one's own hearthstone for the benefit of the guest.

The Polynesians carry their hospitality to an amazing extent. Let a native of Waiurar, the westernmost part of Tahiti, make his appearance as a traveller at Partoowye, the most easterly village of Imeeo; though a perfect stranger, the inhabitants on all sides accost him at their doorways, inviting him to enter, and make himself at home. But the traveller passes on, examining every house attentively; until, at last, he pauses before one which suits him, and then exclaiming, "ah, eda maitai" (this one will do, I think), he steps in, and makes himself perfectly at ease; flinging himself upon the mats, and very probably calling for a nice young cocoa-nut, and a piece of toasted breadfruit, sliced thin, and done brown.

Curious to relate, however, should a stranger carrying it thus bravely be afterwards discovered to be without a house of his own, why, he may thenceforth go a-begging for his lodgings. The "karhowrees," or white men, are exceptions to this rule. Thus it is precisely as in civilized countries, where those who have houses and lands are incessantly bored to death with invitations to come and live in other people's houses; while many a poor gentleman who inks the seams of his coat, and to whom the like invitation would be really acceptable, may go and sue for it. But to the credit of the ancient Tahitians, it should here be observed that this blemish upon their hospitality is only of recent origin, and was wholly unknown in old times. So told me, Captain Bob.

In Polynesia it is esteemed "a great hit" if a man succeed in marrying into a family to which the best part of the community is related (Heaven knows it is otherwise with us). The reason is that, when he goes a-travelling, the greater number of houses are the more completely at his service.

Receiving a paternal benediction from old Darby and Joan, we continued our journey; resolved to stop at the very next place of attraction which offered.

Nor did we long stroll for it. A fine walk along a beach of shells, and we came to a spot where, trees here and there, the land was all meadow, sloping away to the water, which stirred a sedgy growth of reeds bordering its margin. Close by was a little cove, walled in with coral, where a fleet of canoes was dancing up and down. A few paces distant, on a natural terrace overlooking the sea, were several native dwellings, newly thatched, and peeping into view out of the foliage like summer-houses.

As we drew near, forth came a burst of voices, and, presently, three gay girls, overflowing with life, health, and youth, and full of spirits and mischief. One was arrayed in a flaunting robe of calico; and her long black hair was braided behind in two immense tresses, joined together at the ends, and wreathed with the green tendrils of a vine. From her self-possessed and forward air, I fancied she might be some young lady from Papeetee on a visit to her country relations. Her companions wore mere slips of cotton cloth; their hair was dishevelled; and though very pretty, they betrayed the reserve and embarrassment characteristic of the provinces.

The little gipsy first mentioned ran up to me with great cordiality; and, giving the Tahitian salutation, opened upon me such a fire of questions that there was no understanding, much less answering them. But our hearty welcome to Loohooloo, as she called the hamlet, was made plain enough. Meanwhile, Doctor Long Ghost gallantly presented an arm to each of the other young ladies; which, at first, they knew not what to make of; but at last, taking it for some kind of joke, accepted the civility.

The names of these three damsels were at once made known by themselves: and being so exceedingly romantic, I cannot forbear particularizing them. Upon my comrade's arms, then, were hanging Night and Morning, in the persons of Farnowar, or the Day-Born, and Earnoopoo, or the Night-Born. She with the tresses was very appropriately styled Marhar-Rarrar, the Wakeful, or Bright-Eyed.

By this time, the houses were emptied of the rest of their inmates—a few old men and women, and several strapping young fellows rubbing their eyes and yawning. All crowded round, putting questions as to whence we came. Upon being informed of our acquaintance with Zeke, they were delighted; and one of them recognized the boots worn by the doctor. "Keekee (Zeke) maitai," they cried, "nuee nuee hanna hanna portarto"—(makes plenty of potatoes).

There was now a little friendly altercation as to who should have the honour of entertaining the strangers. At last, a tall old gentleman, by name Marharvai, with a bald head and white beard, took us each by the hand, and led us into his dwelling. Once inside, Marharvai, pointing about with his staff, was so obsequious in assuring us that his house was ours that Long Ghost suggested he might as well hand over the deed.

It was drawing near noon; so after a light lunch of roasted breadfruit, a few whiffs of a pipe, and some lively chatting, our host admonished the company to lie down, and take the everlasting siesta. We complied; and had a social nap all round.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.