by Herman Melville

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Chapter Six



EARLY the next morning the starboard watch were mustered upon thequarter-deck, and our worthy captain, standing in the cabingangway, harangued us as follows:--

'Now, men, as we are just off a six months' cruise, and have gotthrough most all our work in port here, I suppose you want to goashore. Well, I mean to give your watch liberty today, so youmay get ready as soon all you please, and go; but understandthis, I am going to give you liberty because I suppose you wouldgrowl like so many old quarter gunners if I didn't; at the sametime, if you'll take my advice, every mother's son of you willstay aboard and keep out of the way of the bloody cannibalsaltogether. Ten to one, men, if you go ashore, you will get intosome infernal row, and that will be the end of you; for if thosetattooed scoundrels get you a little ways back into theirvalleys, they'll nab you--that you may be certain of. Plenty ofwhite men have gone ashore here and never been seen any more. There was the old Dido, she put in here about two years ago, andsent one watch off on liberty; they never were heard of again fora week--the natives swore they didn't know where they were--andonly three of them ever got back to the ship again, and one withhis face damaged for life, for the cursed heathens tattooed abroad patch clean across his figure-head. But it will be no usetalking to you, for go you will, that I see plainly; so all Ihave to say is, that you need not blame me if the islanders makea meal of you. You may stand some chance of escaping themthough, if you keep close about the French encampment,--and areback to the ship again before sunset. Keep that much in yourmind, if you forget all the rest I've been saying to you. There,go forward: bear a hand and rig yourselves, and stand by for acall. At two bells the boat will be manned to take you off, andthe Lord have mercy on you!'

Various were the emotions depicted upon the countenances of thestarboard watch whilst listening to this address; but on itsconclusion there was a general move towards the forecastle, andwe soon were all busily engaged in getting ready for the holidayso auspiciously announced by the skipper. During thesepreparations his harangue was commented upon in no very measuredterms; and one of the party, after denouncing him as a lying oldson of a seacook who begrudged a fellow a few hours' liberty,exclaimed with an oath, 'But you don't bounce me out of myliberty, old chap, for all your yarns; for I would go ashore ifevery pebble on the beach was a live coal, and every stick agridiron, and the cannibals stood ready to broil me on landing.'

The spirit of this sentiment was responded to by all hands, andwe resolved that in spite of the captain's croakings we wouldmake a glorious day of it.

But Toby and I had our own game to play, and we availed ourselvesof the confusion which always reigns among a ship's companypreparatory to going ashore, to confer together and complete ourarrangements. As our object was to effect as rapid a flight aspossible to the mountains, we determined not to encumberourselves with any superfluous apparel; and accordingly, whilethe rest were rigging themselves out with some idea of making adisplay, we were content to put on new stout duck trousers,serviceable pumps, and heavy Havre-frocks, which with a Payta hatcompleted our equipment.

When our shipmates wondered at this, Toby exclaimed in his oddgrave way that the rest might do, as they liked, but that he forone preserved his go-ashore traps for the Spanish main, where thetie of a sailor's neckerchief might make some difference; but asfor a parcel of unbreeched heathen, he wouldn't go to the bottomof his chest for any of them, and was half disposed to appearamong them in buff himself. The men laughed at what they thoughtwas one of his strange conceits, and so we escaped suspicion.

It may appear singular that we should have been thus on our guardwith our own shipmates; but there were some among us who, hadthey possessed the least inkling of our project, would, for apaltry hope of reward, have immediately communicated it to thecaptain.

As soon as two bells were struck, the word was passed for theliberty-men to get into the boat. I lingered behind in theforecastle a moment to take a parting glance at its familiarfeatures, and just as I was about to ascend to the deck my eyehappened to light on the bread-barge and beef-kid, whichcontained the remnants of our last hasty meal. Although I hadnever before thought of providing anything in the way of food forour expedition, as I fully relied upon the fruits of the islandto sustain us wherever we might wander, yet I could not resistthe inclination I felt to provide luncheon from the relics beforeme. Accordingly I took a double handful of those small, broken,flinty bits of biscuit which generally go by the name of'midshipmen's nuts', and thrust them into the bosom of my frockin which same simple receptacle I had previously stowed awayseveral pounds of tobacco and a few yards of cottoncloth--articles with which I intended to purchase the good-willof the natives, as soon as we should appear among them after thedeparture of our vessel.

This last addition to my stock caused a considerable protuberancein front, which I abated in a measure by shaking the bits ofbread around my waist, and distributing the plugs of tobaccoamong the folds of the garment. Hardly had I completed thesearrangements when my name was sung out by a dozen voices, and Isprung upon the deck, where I found all the party in the boat,and impatient to shove off. I dropped over the side and seatedmyself with the rest of the watch in the stem sheets, while thepoor larboarders shipped their oars, and commenced pulling usashore. This happened to be the rainy season at the islands, andthe heavens had nearly the whole morning betokened one of thoseheavy showers which during this period so frequently occur. Thelarge drops fell bubbling into the water shortly after ourleaving the ship, and by the time we had affected a landing itpoured down in torrents. We fled for shelter under cover of animmense canoe-house which stood hard by the beach, and waited forthe first fury of the storm to pass.

It continued, however, without cessation; and the monotonousbeating of the rain over head began to exert a drowsy influenceupon the men, who, throwing themselves here and there upon thelarge war-canoes, after chatting awhile, all fell asleep.

This was the opportunity we desired, and Toby and I availedourselves of it at once by stealing out of the canoe-house andplunging into the depths of an extensive grove that was in itsrear. After ten minutes' rapid progress we gained an open spacefrom which we could just descry the ridge we intended to mountlooming dimly through the mists of the tropical shower, anddistant from us, as we estimated, something more than a mile. Our direct course towards it lay through a rather populous partof the bay; but desirous as we were of evading the natives andsecuring an unmolested retreat to the mountains, we determined,by taking a circuit through some extensive thickets, to avoidtheir vicinity altogether.

The heavy rain that still continued to fall without intermissionfavoured our enterprise, as it drove the islanders into theirhouses, and prevented any casual meeting with them. Our heavyfrocks soon became completely saturated with water, and by theirweight, and that of the articles we had concealed beneath them,not a little impeded our progress. But it was no time to pausewhen at any moment we might be surprised by a body of thesavages, and forced at the very outset to relinquish ourundertaking.

Since leaving the canoe-house we had scarcely exchanged a singlesyllable with one another; but when we entered a second narrowopening in the wood, and again caught sight of the ridge beforeus, I took Toby by the arm, and pointing along its slopingoutline to the lofty heights at its extremity, said in a lowtone, 'Now, Toby, not a word, nor a glance backward, till westand on the summit of yonder mountain--so no more lingering butlet us shove ahead while we can, and in a few hours' time we maylaugh aloud. You are the lightest and.the nimblest, so lead on,and I will follow.'

'All right, brother,' said Toby, 'quick's our play; only letskeep close together, that's all;' and so saying with a bound likea young roe, he cleared a brook which ran across our path, andrushed forward with a quick step.

When we arrived within a short distance of the ridge, we werestopped by a mass of tall yellow reeds, growing together asthickly as they could stand, and as tough and stubborn as so manyrods of steel; and we perceived, to our chagrin, that theyextended midway up the elevation we proposed to ascend.

For a moment we gazed about us in quest of a more practicableroute; it was, however, at once apparent that there was noresource but to pierce this thicket of canes at all hazards. Wenow reversed our order of march, I, being the heaviest, takingthe lead, with a view of breaking a path through the obstruction,while Toby fell into the rear.

Two or three times I endeavoured to insinuate myself between thecanes, and by dint of coaxing and bending them to make someprogress; but a bull-frog might as well have tried to work apassage through the teeth of a comb, and I gave up the attempt indespair.

Half wild with meeting an obstacle we had so little anticipated,I threw myself desperately against it, crushing to the ground thecanes with which I came in contact, and, rising to my feet again,repeated the action with like effect. Twenty minutes of thisviolent exercise almost exhausted me, but it carried us some wayinto the thicket; when Toby, who had been reaping the benefit ofmy labours by following close at my heels, proposed to becomepioneer in turn, and accordingly passed ahead with a view ofaffording me a respite from my exertions. As however with hisslight frame he made but bad work of it, I was soon obliged toresume my old place again. On we toiled, the perspirationstarting from our bodies in floods, our limbs torn and laceratedwith the splintered fragments of the broken canes, until we hadproceeded perhaps as far as the middle of the brake, whensuddenly it ceased raining, and the atmosphere around us becameclose and sultry beyond expression. The elasticity of the reedsquickly recovering from the temporary pressure of our bodies,caused them to spring back to their original position; so thatthey closed in upon us as we advanced, and prevented thecirculation of little air which might otherwise have reached us. Besides this, their great height completely shut us out from theview of surrounding objects, and we were not certain but that wemight have been going all the time in a wrong direction.

Fatigued with my long-continued efforts, and panting for breath,I felt myself completely incapacitated for any further exertion. I rolled up the sleeve of my frock, and squeezed the moisture itcontained into my parched mouth. But the few drops I managed toobtain gave me little relief, and I sank down for a moment with asort of dogged apathy, from which I was aroused by Toby, who haddevised a plan to free us from the net in which we had becomeentangled.

He was laying about him lustily with his sheath-knive, loppingthe canes right and left, like a reaper, and soon made quite aclearing around us. This sight reanimated me; and seizing my ownknife, I hacked and hewed away without mercy. But alas! thefarther we advanced the thicker and taller, and apparently themore interminable, the reeds became.

I began to think we were fairly snared, and had almost made up mymind that without a pair of wings we should never be able toescape from the toils; when all at once I discerned a peep ofdaylight through the canes on my right, and, communicating thejoyful tidings to Toby, we both fell to with fresh spirit, andspeedily opening the passage towards it we found ourselves clearof perplexities, and in the near vicinity of the ridge. Afterresting for a few moments we began the ascent, and after a littlevigorous climbing found ourselves close to its summit. Insteadhowever of walking along its ridge, where we should have been infull view of the natives in the vales beneath, and at a pointwhere they could easily intercept us were they so inclined, wecautiously advanced on one side, crawling on our hands and knees,and screened from observation by the grass through which weglided, much in the fashion of a couple of serpents. After anhour employed in this unpleasant kind of locomotion, we startedto our feet again and pursued our way boldly along the crest ofthe ridge.

This salient spur of the lofty elevations that encompassed thebay rose with a sharp angle from the valleys at its base, andpresented, with the exception of a few steep acclivities, theappearance of a vast inclined plane, sweeping down towards thesea from the heights in the distance. We had ascended it nearthe place of its termination and at its lowest point, and now sawour route to the mountains distinctly defined along its narrowcrest, which was covered with a soft carpet of verdure, and wasin many parts only a few feet wide.

Elated with the success which had so far attended our enterprise,and invigorated by the refreshing atmosphere we now inhaled, Tobyand I in high spirits were making our way rapidly along theridge, when suddenly from the valleys below which lay on eitherside of us we heard the distant shouts of the natives, who hadjust descried us, and to whom our figures, brought in bold reliefagainst the sky, were plainly revealed.

Glancing our eyes into these valleys, we perceived their savageinhabitants hurrying to and fro, seemingly under the influence ofsome sudden alarm, and appearing to the eye scarcely bigger thanso many pigmies; while their white thatched dwellings, dwarfed bythe distance, looked like baby-houses. As we looked down uponthe islanders from our lofty elevation, we experienced a sense ofsecurity; feeling confident that, should they undertake apursuit, it would, from the start we now had, prove entirelyfruitless, unless they followed us into the mountains, where weknew they cared not to venture.

However, we thought it as well to make the most of our time; andaccordingly, where the ground would admit of it, we ran swiftlyalong the summit of the ridge, until we were brought to a standby a steep cliff, which at first seemed to interpose an effectualbarrier to our farther advance. By dint of much hard scramblinghowever, and at some risk to our necks, we at last surmounted it,and continued our fight with unabated celerity.

We had left the beach early in the morning, and after anuninterrupted, though at times difficult and dangerous ascent,during which we had never once turned our faces to the sea, wefound ourselves, about three hours before sunset, standing on thetop of what seemed to be the highest land on the island, animmense overhanging cliff composed of basaltic rocks, hung roundwith parasitical plants. We must have been more than threethousand feet above the level of the sea, and the scenery viewedfrom this height was magnificent.

The lonely bay of Nukuheva, dotted here and there with the blackhulls of the vessels composing the French squadron, lay reposingat the base of a circular range of elevations, whose verdantsides, perforated with deep glens or diversified with smilingvalleys, formed altogether the loveliest view I ever beheld, andwere I to live a hundred years, I shall never forget the feelingof admiration which I then experienced.

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