Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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THE Pill Box was sometimes employed for other purposes than that described in the last chapter. We sometimes went a-pleasuring in it.

Right in the middle of Papeetee harbour is a bright, green island, one circular grove of waving palms, and scarcely a hundred yards across. It is of coral formation; and all round, for many rods out, the bay is so shallow that you might wade anywhere. Down in these waters, as transparent as air, you see coral plants of every hue and shape imaginable:—antlers, tufts of azure, waving reeds like stalks of grain, and pale green buds and mosses. In some places, you look through prickly branches down to a snow-white floor of sand, sprouting with flinty bulbs; and crawling among these are strange shapes:—some bristling with spikes, others clad in shining coats of mail, and here and there, round forms all spangled with eyes.

The island is called Hotoo-Otoo; and around Hotoo-Otoo have I often paddled of a white moonlight night, pausing now and then to admire the marine gardens beneath.

The place is the private property of the queen, who has a residence there—a melancholy-looking range of bamboo houses—neglected and falling to decay among the trees.

Commanding the harbour as it does, her majesty has done all she could to make a fortress of the island. The margin has been raised and levelled, and built up with a low parapet of hewn Hocks of coral. Behind the parapet are ranged, at wide intervals, a number of rusty old cannon, of all fashions and calibres. They are mounted upon lame, decrepit-looking carriages, ready to sink under the useless burden of bearing them up. Indeed, two or three have given up the ghost altogether, and the pieces they sustained lie half buried among their bleaching bones. Several of the cannon are spiked; probably with a view of making them more formidable; as they certainly must be to anyone undertaking to fire them off.

Presented to Pomaree at various times by captains of British armed ships, these poor old "dogs of war," thus toothless and turned out to die, formerly bayed in full pack as the battle-hounds of Old England.

There was something about Hotoo-Otoo that struck my fancy; and I registered a vow to plant my foot upon its soil, notwithstanding an old bareheaded sentry menaced me in the moonlight with an unsightly musket. As my canoe drew scarcely three inches of water, I could paddle close up to the parapet without grounding; but every time I came near, the old man ran toward me, pushing his piece forward, but never clapping it to his shoulder. Thinking he only meant to frighten me, I at last dashed the canoe right Up to the wall, purposing a leap. It was the rashest act of my life; for never did cocoa-nut come nearer getting demolished than mine did then. With the stock of his gun, the old warder fetched a tremendous blow, which I managed to dodge; and then falling back, succeeded in paddling out of harm's reach.

He must have been dumb; for never a word did he utter; but grinning from ear to ear, and with his white cotton robe streaming in the moonlight, he looked more like the spook of the island than anything mortal.

I tried to effect my object by attacking him in the rear—but he was all front; running about the place as I paddled, and presenting his confounded musket wherever I went. At last I was obliged to retreat; and to this day my vow remains unfulfilled.

It was a few days after my repulse from before the walls of Hotoo-Otoo that I heard a curious case of casuistry argued between one of the most clever and intelligent natives I ever saw in Tahiti, a man by the name of Arheetoo, and our learned Theban of a doctor.

It was this:—whether it was right and lawful for anyone, being a native, to keep the European Sabbath, in preference to the day set apart as such by the missionaries, and so considered by the islanders in general.

It must be known that the missionaries of the good ship Duff, who more than half-a-century ago established the Tahitian reckoning, came hither by the way of the Cape of Good Hope; and by thus sailing to the eastward, lost one precious day of their lives all round, getting about that much in advance of Greenwich time. For this reason, vessels coming round Cape Horn—as they most all do nowadays—find it Sunday in Tahiti, when, according to their own view of the matter, it ought to be Saturday. But as it won't do to alter the log, the sailors keep their Sabbath, and the islanders theirs.

This confusion perplexes the poor natives mightily; and it is to no purpose that you endeavour to explain so incomprehensible a phenomenon. I once saw a worthy old missionary essay to shed some light on the subject; and though I understood but a few of the words employed, I could easily get at the meaning of his illustrations. They were something like the following:

"Here," says he, "you see this circle" (describing a large one on the ground with a stick); "very good; now you see this spot here" (marking a point in the perimeter): "well; this is Beretanee (England), and I'm going to sail round to Tahiti. Here I go, then (following the circle round), and there goes the sun (snatching up another stick, and commissioning a bandy-legged native to travel round with it in a contrary direction). Now then, we are both off, and both going away from each other; and here you see I have arrived at Tahiti (making a sudden stop); and look now where Bandy Legs is!"

But the crowd strenuously maintained that Bandy Legs ought to be somewhere above them in the atmosphere; for it was a traditionary fact that the people from the Duff came ashore when the sun was high overhead. And here the old gentleman, being a very good sort of man, doubtless, but no astronomer, was obliged to give up.

Arheetoo, the casuist alluded to, though a member of the church, and extremely conscientious about what Sabbath he kept, was more liberal in other matters. Learning that I was something of a "mick-onaree" (in this sense, a man able to read, and cunning in the use of the pen), he desired the slight favour of my forging for him a set of papers; for which, he said, he would be much obliged, and give me a good dinner of roast pig and Indian turnip in the bargain.

Now, Arheetoo was one of those who board the shipping for their washing; and the competition being very great (the proudest chiefs not disdaining to solicit custom in person, though the work is done by their dependants), he had decided upon a course suggested by a knowing sailor, a friend of his. He wished to have manufactured a set of certificates, purporting to come from certain man-of-war and merchant captains, known to have visited the island; recommending him as one of the best getters up of fine linen in all Polynesia.

At this time, Arheetoo had known me but two hours; and, as he made the proposition very coolly, I thought it rather presumptuous, and told him so. But as it was quite impossible to convey a hint, and there was a slight impropriety in the thing, I did not resent the insult, but simply declined.

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