Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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THE following morning, making our toilets carefully, we donned our sombreros, and sallied out on a tour. Without meaning to reveal our designs upon the court, our principal object was, to learn what chances there were for white men to obtain employment under the queen. On this head, it is true, we had questioned Po-Po; but his answers had been very discouraging; so we determined to obtain further information elsewhere.

But, first, to give some little description of the village.

The settlement of Partoowye is nothing more than some eighty houses, scattered here and there, in the midst of an immense grove, where the trees have been thinned out and the underbrush cleared away. Through the grove flows a stream; and the principal avenue crosses it, over an elastic bridge of cocoa-nut trunks, laid together side by side. The avenue is broad, and serpentine; well shaded from one end to the other, and as pretty a place for a morning promenade as any lounger could wish. The houses, constructed without the slightest regard to the road, peep into view from among the trees on either side: some looking you right in the face as you pass, and others, without any manners, turning their backs. Occasionally you observe a rural retreat, inclosed by a picket of bamboos, or with a solitary pane of glass massively framed in the broadside of the dwelling, or with a rude, strange-looking door, swinging upon dislocated wooden hinges. Otherwise, the dwellings are built in the original style of the natives; and never mind how mean and filthy some of them may appear within, they all look picturesque enough without.

As we sauntered along the people we met saluted us pleasantly, and invited us into their houses; and in this way we made a good many brief morning calls. But the hour could not have been the fashionable one in Partoowye, since the ladies were invariably in dishabille. But they always gave us a cordial reception, and were particularly polite to the doctor; caressing him, and amorously hanging about his neck; wonderfully taken up, in short, with a gay handkerchief he wore there. Arfretee had that morning bestowed it upon the pious youth.

With some exceptions, the general appearance of the natives of Partoowye was far better than that of the inhabitants of Papeetee: a circumstance only to be imputed to their restricted intercourse with foreigners.

Strolling on, we turned a sweep of the road, when the doctor gave a start; and no wonder. Right before us, in the grove, was a block of houses: regular square frames, boarded over, furnished with windows and doorways, and two stories high. We ran up and found them fast going to decay: very dingy, and here and there covered with moss; no sashes, no doors; and on one side, the entire block had settled down nearly a foot. On going into the basement we looked clean up through the unbearded timbers to the roof; where rays of light, glimmering through many a chink, illuminated the cobwebs which swung all round.

The whole interior was dark and close. Burrowing among some old mats in one corner, like a parcel of gipsies in a ruin, were a few vagabond natives. They had their dwelling here.

Curious to know who on earth could have been thus trying to improve the value of real estate in Partoowye, we made inquiries; and learned that some years previous the block had been thrown up by a veritable Yankee (one might have known that), a house-carpenter by trade, and a bold, enterprising fellow by nature.

Put ashore from his ship, sick, he first went to work and got well; then sallied out with chisel and plane, and made himself generally useful. A sober, steady man, it seems, he at last obtained the confidence of several chiefs, and soon filled them with all sorts of ideas concerning the alarming want of public spirit in the people of Imeeo. More especially did he dwell upon the humiliating fact of their living in paltry huts of bamboo, when magnificent palaces of boards might so easily be mortised together.

In the end, these representations so far prevailed with one old chief that the carpenter was engaged to build a batch of these wonderful palaces. Provided with plenty of men, he at once set to work: built a saw-mill among the mountains, felled trees, and sent over to Papeetee for nails.

Presto! the castle rose; but alas, the roof was hardly on, when the Yankee's patron, having speculated beyond his means, broke all to pieces, and was absolutely unable to pay one "plug" of tobacco in the pound. His failure involved the carpenter, who sailed away from his creditors in the very next ship that touched at the harbour.

The natives despised the rickety palace of boards; and often lounged by, wagging their heads, and jeering.

We were told that the queen's residence was at the extreme end of the village; so, without waiting for the doctor to procure a fiddle, we suddenly resolved upon going thither at once, and learning whether any privy counsellorships were vacant.

Now, although there was a good deal of my waggish comrade's nonsense about what has been said concerning our expectations of court preferment, we, nevertheless, really thought that something to our advantage might turn up in that quarter.

On approaching the palace grounds, we found them rather peculiar. A broad pier of hewn coral rocks was built right out into the water; and upon this, and extending into a grove adjoining, were some eight or ten very large native houses, constructed in the handsomest style and inclosed together by a low picket of bamboos, which embraced a considerable area.

Throughout the Society Islands, the residences of the chiefs are mostly found in the immediate vicinity of the sea; a site which gives them the full benefit of a cooling breeze; nor are they so liable to the annoyance of insects; besides enjoying, when they please, the fine shade afforded by the neighbouring groves, always most luxuriant near the water.

Lounging about the grounds were some sixty or eighty handsomely-dressed natives, men and women; some reclining on the shady side of the houses, others under the trees, and a small group conversing close by the railing facing us.

We went up to the latter; and giving the usual salutation, were on the point of vaulting over the bamboos, when they turned upon us angrily, and said we could not enter. We stated our earnest desire to see the queen; hinting that we were bearers of important dispatches. But it was to no purpose; and not a little vexed, we were obliged to return to Po-Po's without effecting anything.

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.