by Herman Melville

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Chapter Thirty-one

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONESTRANGE CUSTOM OF THE ISLANDERS--THEIR CHANTING, AND THEPECULIARITY OF THEIR VOICE--RAPTURE OF THE KING AT FIRST HEARINGA SONG--A NEW DIGNITY CONFERRED ON THE AUTHOR--MUSICALINSTRUMENTS IN THE VALLEY--ADMIRATION OF THE SAVAGES AT BEHOLDINGA PUGILISTIC PERFORMANCE--SWIMMING INFANT--BEAUTIFUL TRESSES OFTHE GIRLS--OINTMENT FOR THE HAIRSADLY discursive as I have already been, I must still furtherentreat the reader's patience, as I am about to string together,without any attempt at order, a few odds and ends of things nothitherto mentioned, but which are either curious in themselves orpeculiar to the Typees.There was one singular custom observed in old Marheyo's domesticestablishment, which often excited my surprise. Every night,before retiring, the inmates of the house gathered together onthe mats, and so squatting upon their haunches, after theuniversal practice of these islanders, would commence a low,dismal and monotonous chant, accompanying the voice with theinstrumental melody produced by two small half-rotten stickstapped slowly together, a pair of which were held in the hands ofeach person present. Thus would they employ themselves for anhour or two, sometimes longer. Lying in the gloom which wrappedthe further end of the house, I could not avoid looking at them,although the spectacle suggested nothing but unpleasantreflection. The flickering rays of the 'armor' nut just servedto reveal their savage lineaments, without dispelling thedarkness that hovered about them.Sometimes when, after falling into a kind of doze, and awakingsuddenly in the midst of these doleful chantings, my eye wouldfall upon the wild-looking group engaged in their strangeoccupation, with their naked tattooed limbs, and shaven headsdisposed in a circle, I was almost tempted to believe that Igazed upon a set of evil beings in the act of working at afrightful incantation.What was the meaning or purpose of this custom, whether it waspracticed merely as a diversion, or whether it was a religiousexercise, a sort of family prayers, I never could discover.The sounds produced by the natives on these occasions were of amost singular description; and had I not actually been present, Inever would have believed that such curious noises could havebeen produced by human beings.To savages generally is imputed a guttural articulation. Thishowever, is not always the case, especially among the inhabitantsof the Polynesian Archipelago. The labial melody with which theTypee girls carry on an ordinary conversation, giving a musicalprolongation to the final syllable of every sentence, andchirping out some of the words with a liquid, bird-like accent,was singularly pleasing.The men however, are not quite so harmonious in their utterance,and when excited upon any subject, would work themselves up intoa sort of wordy paroxysm, during which all descriptions ofrough-sided sounds were projected from their mouths, with a forceand rapidity which was absolutely astonishing. . . . . . . . .Although these savages are remarkably fond of chanting, stillthey appear to have no idea whatever of singing, at least as theart is practised in other nations.I shall never forget the first time I happened to roar out astave in the presence of noble Mehevi. It was a stanza from the'Bavarian broom-seller'. His Typeean majesty, with all hiscourt, gazed upon me in amazement, as if I had displayed somepreternatural faculty which Heaven had denied to them. The Kingwas delighted with the verse; but the chorus fairly transportedhim. At his solicitation I sang it again and again, and nothingcould be more ludicrous than his vain attempts to catch the airand the words. The royal savage seemed to think that by screwingall the features of his face into the end of his nose he mightpossibly succeed in the undertaking, but it failed to answer thepurpose; and in the end he gave it up, and consoled himself bylistening to my repetition of the sounds fifty times over.Previous to Mehevi's making the discovery, I had never been awarethat there was anything of the nightingale about me; but I wasnow promoted to the place of court-minstrel, in which capacity Iwas afterwards perpetually called upon to officiate. . . . . . . . .Besides the sticks and the drums, there are no other musicalinstruments among the Typees, except one which mightappropriately be denominated a nasal flute. It is somewhatlonger than an ordinary fife; is made of a beautifulscarlet-coloured reed; and has four or five stops, with a largehole near one end, which latter is held just beneath the leftnostril. The other nostril being closed by a peculiar movementof the muscles about the nose, the breath is forced into thetube, and produces a soft dulcet sound which is varied by thefingers running at random over the stops. This is a favouriterecreation with the females and one in which Fayaway greatlyexcelled. Awkward as such an instrument may appear, it was, inFayaway's delicate little hands, one of the most graceful I haveever seen. A young lady, in the act of tormenting a guitarstrung about her neck by a couple of yards of blue ribbon, is nothalf so engaging. . . . . . . . .Singing was not the only means I possessed of diverting the royalMehevi and his easy-going subject. Nothing afforded them morepleasure than to see me go through the attitude of pugilisticencounter. As not one of the natives had soul enough in him tostand up like a man, and allow me to hammer away at him, for myown personal gratification and that of the king, I wasnecessitated to fight with an imaginary enemy, whom I invariablymade to knock under to my superior prowess. Sometimes when thissorely battered shadow retreated precipitately towards a group ofthe savages, and, following him up, I rushed among them dealingmy blows right and left, they would disperse in all directionsmuch to the enjoyment of Mehevi, the chiefs, and themselves.The noble art of self-defence appeared to be regarded by them asthe peculiar gift of the white man; and I make little doubt thatthey supposed armies of Europeans were drawn up provided withnothing else but bony fists and stout hearts, with which they setto in column, and pummelled one another at the word of command. . . . . . . . .One day, in company with Kory-Kory, I had repaired to the streamfor the purpose of bathing, when I observed a woman sitting upona rock in the midst of the current, and watching with theliveliest interest the gambols of something, which at first Itook to be an uncommonly large species of frog that was sportingin the water near her. Attracted by the novelty of the sight, Iwaded towards the spot where she sat, and could hardly credit theevidence of my senses when I beheld a little infant, the periodof whose birth could not have extended back many days, paddlingabout as if it had just risen to the surface, after being hatchedinto existence at the bottom. Occasionally, the delighted parentreached out her hand towards it, when the little thing, utteringa faint cry, and striking out its tiny limbs, would sidle for therock, and the next moment be clasped to its mother's bosom. Thiswas repeated again and again, the baby remaining in the streamabout a minute at a time. Once or twice it made wry faces atswallowing a mouthful of water, and choked a spluttered as if onthe point of strangling. At such times however, the mothersnatched it up and by a process scarcely to be mentioned obligedit to eject the fluid. For several weeks afterwards I observedthis woman bringing her child down to the stream regularly everyday, in the cool of the morning and evening and treating it to abath. No wonder that the South Sea Islanders are so amphibious arace, when they are thus launched into the water as soon as theysee the light. I am convinced that it is as natural for a humanbeing to swim as it is for a duck. And yet in civilizedcommunities how many able-bodied individuals die, like so manydrowning kittens, from the occurrence of the most trivialaccidents! . . . . . . . .The long luxuriant and glossy tresses of the Typee damsels oftenattracted my admiration. A fine head of hair is the pride andjoy of every woman's heart. Whether against the express will ofProvidence, it is twisted upon the crown of the head and therecoiled away like a rope on a ship's deck; whether it be stuckbehind the ears and hangs down like the swag of a smallwindow-curtain; or whether it be permitted to flow over theshoulders in natural ringlets, it is always the pride of theowner, and the glory of the toilette.The Typee girls devote much of their time to the dressing oftheir fair and redundant locks. After bathing, as they sometimesdo five or six times every day, the hair is carefully dried, andif they have been in the sea, invariably washed in fresh water,and anointed with a highly scented oil extracted from the meat ofthe cocoanut. This oil is obtained in great abundance by thefollowing very simple process:A large vessel of wood, with holes perforated in the bottom, isfilled with the pounded meat, and exposed to the rays of the sun. As the oleaginous matter exudes, it falls in drops through theapertures into a wide-mouthed calabash placed underneath. Aftera sufficient quantity has thus been collected, the oil undergoesa purifying process, and is then poured into the small sphericalshells of the nuts of the moo-tree, which are hollowed out toreceive it. These nuts are then hermetically sealed with aresinous gum, and the vegetable fragrance of their green rindsoon imparts to the oil a delightful odour. After the lapse of afew weeks the exterior shell of the nuts becomes quite dry andhard, and assumes a beautiful carnation tint; and when openedthey are found to be about two-thirds full of an ointment of alight yellow colour and diffusing the sweetest perfume. Thiselegant little odorous globe would not be out of place even uponthe toilette of a queen. Its merits as a preparation for the hairare undeniable--it imparts to it a superb gloss and a silkyfineness.

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