Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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UPON arriving home we fully laid open to Po-Po our motives in visiting Taloo, and begged his friendly advice. In his broken English he cheerfully gave us all the information we needed.

It was true, he said, that the queen entertained some idea of making a stand against the French; and it was currently reported also that several chiefs from Borabora, Huwyenee, Raiatair, and Tahar, the leeward islands of the group, were at that very time taking counsel with her as to the expediency of organizing a general movement throughout the entire cluster, with a view of anticipating any further encroachments on the part of the invaders. Should warlike measures be actually decided upon, it was quite certain that Pomaree would be glad to enlist all the foreigners she could; but as to her making officers of either the doctor or me, that was out of the question; because, already, a number of Europeans, well known to her, had volunteered as such. Concerning our getting immediate access to the queen, Po-Po told us it was rather doubtful; she living at that time very retired, in poor health, and spirits, and averse to receiving calls. Previous to her misfortunes, however, no one, however humble, was denied admittance to her presence; sailors, even, attended her levees.

Not at all disheartened by these things, we concluded to kill time in Partoowye until some event turned up more favourable to our projects. So that very day we sallied out on an excursion to the ship which, lying land-locked far up the bay, yet remained to be visited.

Passing on our route a long, low shed, a voice hailed us—"White men ahoy!" Turning round, who should we see but a rosy-cheeked Englishman (you could tell his country at a glance), up to his knees in shavings, and planing away at a bench. He turned out to be a runaway ship's carpenter, recently from Tahiti, and now doing a profitable business in Imeeo, by fitting up the dwellings of opulent chiefs with cupboards and other conveniences, and once in a while trying his hand at a lady's work-box. He had been in the settlement but a few months, and already possessed houses and lands.

But though blessed with prosperity and high health, there was one thing wanting—a wife. And when he came to speak of the matter, his countenance fell, and he leaned dejectedly upon his plane.

"It's too bad!" he sighed, "to wait three long years; and all the while, dear little Lullee living in the same house with that infernal chief from Tahar!"

Our curiosity was piqued; the poor carpenter, then, had been falling in love with some island coquette, who was going to jilt him.

But such was not the case. There was a law prohibiting, under a heavy penalty, the marriage of a native with a foreigner, unless the latter, after being three years a resident on the island, was willing to affirm his settled intention of remaining for life.

William was therefore in a sad way. He told us that he might have married the girl half-a-dozen times, had it not been for this odious law: but, latterly, she had become less loving and more giddy, particularly with the strangers from Tahar. Desperately smitten, and desirous of securing her at all hazards, he had proposed to the damsel's friends a nice little arrangement, introductory to marriage; but they would not hear of it; besides, if the pair were discovered living together upon such a footing, they would be liable to a degrading punishment:—sent to work making stone walls and opening roads for the queen.

Doctor Long Ghost was all sympathy. "Bill, my good fellow," said he, tremulously, "let me go and talk to her." But Bill, declining the offer, would not even inform us where his charmer lived.

Leaving the disconsolate Willie planing a plank of New Zealand pine (an importation from the Bay of Islands), and thinking the while of Lullee, we went on our way. How his suit prospered in the end we never learned.

Going from Po-Po's house toward the anchorage of the harbour of Taloo, you catch no glimpse of the water until, coming out from deep groves, you all at once find yourself upon the beach. A bay, considered by many voyagers the most beautiful in the South Seas, then lies before you. You stand upon one side of what seems a deep green river, flowing through mountain passes to the sea. Right opposite a majestic promontory divides the inlet from another, called after its discoverer, Captain Cook. The face of this promontory toward Taloo is one verdant wall; and at its base the waters lie still and fathomless. On the left hand, you just catch a peep of the widening mouth of the bay, the break in the reef by which ships enter, and, beyond, the sea. To the right, the inlet, sweeping boldly round the promontory, runs far away into the land; where, save in one direction, the hills close in on every side, knee-deep in verdure and shooting aloft in grotesque peaks. The open space lies at the head of the bay; in the distance it extends into a broad hazy plain lying at the foot of an amphitheatre of hills. Here is the large sugar plantation previously alluded to. Beyond the first range of hills, you descry the sharp pinnacles of the interior; and among these, the same silent Marling-spike which we so often admired from the other side of the island.

All alone in the harbour lay the good ship Leviathan. We jumped into the canoe, and paddled off to her. Though early in the afternoon, everything was quiet; but upon mounting the side we found four or five sailors lounging about the forecastle, under an awning. They gave us no very cordial reception; and though otherwise quite hearty in appearance, seemed to assume a look of ill-humour on purpose to honour our arrival. There was much eagerness to learn whether we wanted to "ship"; and by the unpleasant accounts they gave of the vessel, they seemed desirous to prevent such a thing if possible.

We asked where the rest of the ship's company were; a gruff old fellow made answer, "One boat's crew of 'em is gone to Davy Jones's locker:—went off after a whale, last cruise, and never come back agin. All the starboard watch ran away last night, and the skipper's ashore kitching 'em."

"And it's shipping yer after, my jewels, is it?" cried a curly-pated little Belfast sailor, coming up to us, "thin arrah! my livelies, jist be after sailing ashore in a jiffy:—the divil of a skipper will carry yees both to sea, whether or no. Be off wid ye thin, darlints, and steer clear of the likes of this ballyhoo of blazes as long as ye live. They murther us here every day, and starve us into the bargain. Here, Dick, lad, har! the poor divil's canow alongside; and paddle away wid yees for dear life."

But we loitered awhile, listening to more inducements to ship; and at last concluded to stay to supper. My sheath-knife never cut into better sea-beef than that which we found lying in the kid in the forecastle. The bread, too, was hard, dry, and brittle as glass; and there was plenty of both.

While we were below, the mate of the vessel called out for someone to come on deck. I liked his voice. Hearing it was as good as a look at his face. It betokened a true sailor, and no taskmaster.

The appearance of the Leviathan herself was quite pleasing. Like all large, comfortable old whalers, she had a sort of motherly look:—broad in the beam, flush decks, and four chubby boats hanging at the breast. Her sails were furled loosely upon the yards, as if they had been worn long, and fitted easy; her shrouds swung negligently slack; and as for the "running rigging," it never worked hard as it does in some of your "dandy ships," jamming in the sheaves of blocks, like Chinese slippers, too small to be useful: on the contrary, the ropes ran glibly through, as if they had many a time travelled the same road, and were used to it.

When evening came, we dropped into our canoe, and paddled ashore; fully convinced that the good ship never deserved the name which they gave her.

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.