NATURAL HISTORY OF THE VALLEY--GOLDEN LIZARDS--TAMENESS OF THEBIRDS--MOSQUITOES--FLIES--DOGS--A SOLITARY CAT--THE CLIMATE--THECOCOANUT TREE--SINGULAR MODES OF CLIMBING IT--AN AGILE YOUNGCHIEF--FEARLESSNESS OF THE CHILDREN--TOO-TOO AND THE COCOANUTTREE--THE BIRDS OF THE VALLEY
I THINK I must enlighten the reader a little about the naturalhistory of the valley.
Whence, in the name of Count Buffon and Baron Cuvier, came thosedogs that I saw in Typee? Dogs!--Big hairless rats rather; allwith smooth, shining speckled hides--fat sides, and verydisagreeable faces. Whence could they have come? That they werenot the indigenous production of the region, I am firmlyconvinced. Indeed they seemed aware of their being interlopers,looking fairly ashamed, and always trying to hide themselves insome dark corner. It was plain enough they did not feel at homein the vale--that they wished themselves well out of it, and backto the ugly country from which they must have come.
Scurvy curs! they were my abhorrence; I should have likednothing better than to have been the death of every one of them. In fact, on one occasion, I intimated the propriety of a caninecrusade to Mehevi; but the benevolent king would not consent toit. He heard me very patiently; but when I had finished, shookhis head, and told me in confidence that they were 'taboo'.
As for the animal that made the fortune of the ex-lord-mayorWhittington, I shall never forget the day that I was lying in thehouse about noon, everybody else being fast asleep; and happeningto raise my eyes, met those of a big black spectral cat, whichsat erect in the doorway, looking at me with its frightfulgoggling green orbs, like one of those monstrous imps thattorment some of Teniers' saints! I am one of those unfortunatepersons to whom the sight of these animals are, at any time aninsufferable annoyance.
Thus constitutionally averse to cats in general, the unexpectedapparition of this one in particular utterly confounded me. WhenI had a little recovered from the fascination of its glance, Istarted up; the cat fled, and emboldened by this, I rushed out ofthe house in pursuit; but it had disappeared. It was the onlytime I ever saw one in the valley, and how it got there I cannotimagine. It is just possible that it might have escaped from oneof the ships at Nukuheva. It was in vain to seek information onthe subject from the natives, since none of them had seen theanimal, the appearance of which remains a mystery to me to thisday.
Among the few animals which are to be met with in Typee, therewas none which I looked upon with more interest than a beautifulgolden-hued species of lizard. It measured perhaps five inchesfrom head to tail, and was most gracefully proportioned. Numbersof those creatures were to be seen basking in the sunshine uponthe thatching of the houses, and multitudes at all hours of theday showed their glittering sides as they ran frolicking betweenthe spears of grass or raced in troops up and down the tallshafts of the cocoanut trees. But the remarkable beauty of theselittle animals and their lively ways were not their only claimsupon my admiration. They were perfectly tame and insensible tofear. Frequently, after seating myself upon the ground in someshady place during the heat of the day, I would be completelyoverrun with them. If I brushed one off my arm, it would leapperhaps into my hair: when I tried to frighten it away by gentlypinching its leg, it would turn for protection to the very handthat attacked it.
The birds are also remarkably tame. If you happened to see oneperched upon a branch within reach of your arm, and advancedtowards it, it did not fly away immediately, but waited quietlylooking at you, until you could almost touch it, and then tookwing slowly, less alarmed at your presence, it would seem, thandesirous of removing itself from your path. Had salt been lessscarce in the valley than it was, this was the very place to havegone birding with it. I remember that once, on an uninhabitedisland of the Gallipagos, a bird alighted on my outstretched arm,while its mate chirped from an adjoining tree. Its tameness, farfrom shocking me, as a similar occurrence did Selkirk, impartedto me the most exquisite thrill of delight I ever experienced,and with somewhat of the same pleasure did I afterwards beholdthe birds and lizards of the valley show their confidence in thekindliness of man.
Among the numerous afflictions which the Europeans have entailedupon some of the natives of the South Seas, is the accidentalintroduction among them of that enemy of all repose and rufflerof even tempers--the Mosquito. At the Sandwich Islands and attwo or three of the Society group, there are now thrivingcolonies of these insects, who promise ere long to supplantaltogether the aboriginal sand-flies. They sting, buzz, andtorment, from one end of the year to the other, and byincessantly exasperating the natives materially obstruct thebenevolent labours of the missionaries.
From this grievous visitation, however the Typees are as yetwholly exempt; but its place is unfortunately in some degreesupplied by the occasional presence of a minute species of fly,which, without stinging, is nevertheless productive of no littleannoyance. The tameness of the birds and lizards is as nothingwhen compared to the fearless confidence of this insect. He willperch upon one of your eye-lashes, and go to roost there if youdo not disturb him, or force his way through your hair, or alongthe cavity of the nostril, till you almost fancy he is resolvedto explore the very brain itself. On one occasion I was soinconsiderate as to yawn while a number of them were hoveringaround me. I never repeated the act. Some half-dozen dartedinto the open apartment, and began walking about its ceiling; thesensation was dreadful. I involuntarily closed my mouth, and thepoor creatures being enveloped in inner darkness, must in theirconsternation have stumbled over my palate, and been precipitatedinto the gulf beneath. At any rate, though I afterwardscharitably held my mouth open for at least five minutes, with aview of affording egress to the stragglers, none of them everavailed themselves of the opportunity.
There are no wild animals of any kind on the island unless it bedecided that the natives themselves are such. The mountains andthe interior present to the eye nothing but silent solitudes,unbroken by the roar of beasts of prey, and enlivened by fewtokens even of minute animated existence. There are no venomousreptiles, and no snakes of any description to be found in any ofthe valleys.
In a company of Marquesan natives the weather affords no topic ofconversation. It can hardly be said to have any vicissitudes. The rainy season, it is true, brings frequent showers, but theyare intermitting and refreshing. When an islander bound on someexpedition rises from his couch in the morning, he is neversolicitous to peep out and see how the sky looks, or ascertainfrom what quarter the wind blows. He is always sure of a 'fineday', and the promise of a few genial showers he hails withpleasure. There is never any of that 'remarkable weather' on theislands which from time immemorial has been experienced inAmerica, and still continues to call forth the wonderingconversational exclamations of its elderly citizens. Nor dothere even occur any of those eccentric meteorological changeswhich elsewhere surprise us. In the valley of Typee ice-creamswould never be rendered less acceptable by sudden frosts, norwould picnic parties be deferred on account of inauspicioussnowstorms: for there day follows day in one unvarying round ofsummer and sunshine, and the whole year is one long tropicalmonth of June just melting into July.
It is this genial climate which causes the cocoanuts to flourishas they do. This invaluable fruit, brought to perfection by therich soil of the Marquesas, and home aloft on a stately columnmore than a hundred feet from the ground, would seem at firstalmost inaccessible to the simple natives. Indeed the slender,smooth, and soaring shaft, without a single limb or protuberanceof any kind to assist one in mounting it, presents an obstacleonly to be overcome by the surprising agility and ingenuity ofthe islanders. It might be supposed that their indolence wouldlead them patiently to await the period when the ripened nuts,slowly parting from their stems, fall one by one to the ground. This certainly would be the case, were it not that the youngfruit, encased in a soft green husk, with the incipient meatadhering in a jelly-like pellicle to its sides, and containing abumper of the most delicious nectar, is what they chiefly prize. They have at least twenty different terms to express as manyprogressive stages in the growth of the nut. Many of them rejectthe fruit altogether except at a particular period of its growth,which, incredible as it may appear, they seemed to me to be ableto ascertain within an hour or two. Others are still morecapricious in their tastes; and after gathering together a heapof the nuts of all ages, and ingeniously tapping them, will firstsip from one and then from another, as fastidiously as somedelicate wine-bibber experimenting glass in hand among his dustydemi-johns of different vintages.
Some of the young men, with more flexible frames than theircomrades, and perhaps with more courageous souls, bad a way ofwalking up the trunk of the cocoanut trees which to me seemedlittle less than miraculous; and when looking at them in the act,I experienced that curious perplexity a child feels when hebeholds a fly moving feet uppermost along a ceiling.
I will endeavour to describe the way in which Narnee, a nobleyoung chief, sometimes performed this feat for my peculiargratification; but his preliminary performances must also berecorded. Upon my signifying my desire that he should pluck methe young fruit of some particular tree, the handsome savage,throwing himself into a sudden attitude of surprise, feignsastonishment at the apparent absurdity of the request. Maintaining this position for a moment, the strange emotionsdepicted on his countenance soften down into one of humorousresignation to my will, and then looking wistfully up to thetufted top of the tree, he stands on tip-toe, straining his neckand elevating his arm, as though endeavouring to reach the fruitfrom the ground where he stands. As if defeated in this childishattempt, he now sinks to the earth despondingly, beating hisbreast in well-acted despair; and then, starting to his feet allat once, and throwing back his head, raises both hands, like aschool-boy about to catch a falling ball. After continuing thisfor a moment or two, as if in expectation that the fruit wasgoing to be tossed down to him by some good spirit in thetree-top, he turns wildly round in another fit of despair, andscampers off to the distance of thirty or forty yards. Here heremains awhile, eyeing the tree, the very picture of misery; butthe next moment, receiving, as it were, a flash of inspiration,he rushes again towards it, and clasping both arms about thetrunk, with one elevated a little above the other, he presses thesoles of his feet close together against the tree, extending hislegs from it until they are nearly horizontal, and his bodybecomes doubled into an arch; then, hand over hand and foot overfoot, he rises from the earth with steady rapidity, and almostbefore you are aware of it, has gained the cradled and embowerednest of nuts, and with boisterous glee flings the fruit to theground.
This mode of walking the tree is only practicable where the trunkdeclines considerably from the perpendicular. This, however, isalmost always the case; some of the perfectly straight shafts ofthe trees leaning at an angle of thirty degrees.
The less active among the men, and many of the children of thevalley have another method of climbing. They take a broad andstout piece of bark, and secure each end of it to their ankles,so that when the feet thus confined are extended apart, a spaceof little more than twelve inches is left between them. Thiscontrivance greatly facilitates the act of climbing. The bandpressed against the tree, and closely embracing it, yields apretty firm support; while with the arms clasped about the trunk,and at regular intervals sustaining the body, the feet are drawnup nearly a yard at a time, and a corresponding elevation of thehands immediately succeeds. In this way I have seen littlechildren, scarcely five years of age, fearlessly climbing theslender pole of a young cocoanut tree, and while hanging perhapsfifty feet from the ground, receiving the plaudits of theirparents beneath, who clapped their hands, and encouraged them tomount still higher.
What, thought I, on first witnessing one of these exhibitions,would the nervous mothers of America and England say to a similardisplay of hardihood in any of their children? The Lacedemoniannation might have approved of it, but most modern dames wouldhave gone into hysterics at the sight.
At the top of the cocoanut tree the numerous branches, radiatingon all sides from a common centre, form a sort of green andwaving basket, between the leaflets of which you just discern thenuts thickly clustering together, and on the loftier treeslooking no bigger from the ground than bunches of grapes. Iremember one adventurous little fellow--Too-Too was the rascal'sname--who had built himself a sort of aerial baby-house in thepicturesque tuft of a tree adjoining Marheyo's habitation. Heused to spend hours there,--rustling among the branches, andshouting with delight every time the strong gusts of wind rushingdown from the mountain side, swayed to and fro the tall andflexible column on which he was perched. Whenever I heardToo-Too's musical voice sounding strangely to the ear from sogreat a height, and beheld him peeping down upon me from out hisleafy covert, he always recalled to my mind Dibdin's lines--
'There's a sweet little cherub that sits up aloft, To look outfor the life of poor Jack.'
Birds--bright and beautiful birds--fly over the valley of Typee. You see them perched aloft among the immovable boughs of themajestic bread-fruit trees, or gently swaying on the elasticbranches of the Omoo; skimming over the palmetto thatching of thebamboo huts; passing like spirits on the wing through the shadowsof the grove, and sometimes descending into the bosom of thevalley in gleaming flights from the mountains. Their plumage ispurple and azure, crimson and white, black and gold; with billsof every tint: bright bloody red, jet black, and ivory white, andtheir eyes are bright and sparkling; they go sailing through theair in starry throngs; but, alas! the spell of dumbness is uponthem all--there is not a single warbler in the valley!
I know not why it was, but the sight of these birds, generallythe ministers of gladness, always oppressed me with melancholy. As in their dumb beauty they hovered by me whilst I was walking,or looked down upon me with steady curious eyes from out thefoliage, I was almost inclined to fancy that they knew they weregazing upon a stranger, and that they commiserated his fate.