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Chapter Thirty-one

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

STRANGE CUSTOM OF THE ISLANDERS--THEIR CHANTING, AND THE
PECULIARITY OF THEIR VOICE--RAPTURE OF THE KING AT FIRST HEARING
A SONG--A NEW DIGNITY CONFERRED ON THE AUTHOR--MUSICAL
INSTRUMENTS IN THE VALLEY--ADMIRATION OF THE SAVAGES AT BEHOLDING
A PUGILISTIC PERFORMANCE--SWIMMING INFANT--BEAUTIFUL TRESSES OF
THE GIRLS--OINTMENT FOR THE HAIR

SADLY discursive as I have already been, I must still further
entreat the reader's patience, as I am about to string together,
without any attempt at order, a few odds and ends of things not
hitherto mentioned, but which are either curious in themselves or
peculiar to the Typees.

There was one singular custom observed in old Marheyo's domestic
establishment, which often excited my surprise. Every night,
before retiring, the inmates of the house gathered together on
the mats, and so squatting upon their haunches, after the
universal practice of these islanders, would commence a low,
dismal and monotonous chant, accompanying the voice with the
instrumental melody produced by two small half-rotten sticks
tapped slowly together, a pair of which were held in the hands of
each person present. Thus would they employ themselves for an
hour or two, sometimes longer. Lying in the gloom which wrapped
the further end of the house, I could not avoid looking at them,
although the spectacle suggested nothing but unpleasant
reflection. The flickering rays of the 'armor' nut just served
to reveal their savage lineaments, without dispelling the
darkness that hovered about them.

Sometimes when, after falling into a kind of doze, and awaking
suddenly in the midst of these doleful chantings, my eye would
fall upon the wild-looking group engaged in their strange
occupation, with their naked tattooed limbs, and shaven heads
disposed in a circle, I was almost tempted to believe that I
gazed upon a set of evil beings in the act of working at a
frightful incantation.

What was the meaning or purpose of this custom, whether it was
practiced merely as a diversion, or whether it was a religious
exercise, a sort of family prayers, I never could discover.

The sounds produced by the natives on these occasions were of a
most singular description; and had I not actually been present, I
never would have believed that such curious noises could have
been produced by human beings.

To savages generally is imputed a guttural articulation. This
however, is not always the case, especially among the inhabitants
of the Polynesian Archipelago. The labial melody with which the
Typee girls carry on an ordinary conversation, giving a musical
prolongation to the final syllable of every sentence, and
chirping 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 into
a sort of wordy paroxysm, during which all descriptions of
rough-sided sounds were projected from their mouths, with a force
and rapidity which was absolutely astonishing.

. . . . . . . .

Although these savages are remarkably fond of chanting, still
they appear to have no idea whatever of singing, at least as the
art is practised in other nations.

I shall never forget the first time I happened to roar out a
stave in the presence of noble Mehevi. It was a stanza from the
'Bavarian broom-seller'. His Typeean majesty, with all his
court, gazed upon me in amazement, as if I had displayed some
preternatural faculty which Heaven had denied to them. The King
was delighted with the verse; but the chorus fairly transported
him. At his solicitation I sang it again and again, and nothing
could be more ludicrous than his vain attempts to catch the air
and the words. The royal savage seemed to think that by screwing
all the features of his face into the end of his nose he might
possibly succeed in the undertaking, but it failed to answer the
purpose; and in the end he gave it up, and consoled himself by
listening to my repetition of the sounds fifty times over.

Previous to Mehevi's making the discovery, I had never been aware
that there was anything of the nightingale about me; but I was
now promoted to the place of court-minstrel, in which capacity I
was afterwards perpetually called upon to officiate.

. . . . . . . .

Besides the sticks and the drums, there are no other musical
instruments among the Typees, except one which might
appropriately be denominated a nasal flute. It is somewhat
longer than an ordinary fife; is made of a beautiful
scarlet-coloured reed; and has four or five stops, with a large
hole near one end, which latter is held just beneath the left
nostril. The other nostril being closed by a peculiar movement
of the muscles about the nose, the breath is forced into the
tube, and produces a soft dulcet sound which is varied by the
fingers running at random over the stops. This is a favourite
recreation with the females and one in which Fayaway greatly
excelled. Awkward as such an instrument may appear, it was, in
Fayaway's delicate little hands, one of the most graceful I have
ever seen. A young lady, in the act of tormenting a guitar
strung about her neck by a couple of yards of blue ribbon, is not
half so engaging.

. . . . . . . .

Singing was not the only means I possessed of diverting the royal
Mehevi and his easy-going subject. Nothing afforded them more
pleasure than to see me go through the attitude of pugilistic
encounter. As not one of the natives had soul enough in him to
stand up like a man, and allow me to hammer away at him, for my
own personal gratification and that of the king, I was
necessitated to fight with an imaginary enemy, whom I invariably
made to knock under to my superior prowess. Sometimes when this
sorely battered shadow retreated precipitately towards a group of
the savages, and, following him up, I rushed among them dealing
my blows right and left, they would disperse in all directions
much to the enjoyment of Mehevi, the chiefs, and themselves.

The noble art of self-defence appeared to be regarded by them as
the peculiar gift of the white man; and I make little doubt that
they supposed armies of Europeans were drawn up provided with
nothing else but bony fists and stout hearts, with which they set
to in column, and pummelled one another at the word of command.

. . . . . . . .

One day, in company with Kory-Kory, I had repaired to the stream
for the purpose of bathing, when I observed a woman sitting upon
a rock in the midst of the current, and watching with the
liveliest interest the gambols of something, which at first I
took to be an uncommonly large species of frog that was sporting
in the water near her. Attracted by the novelty of the sight, I
waded towards the spot where she sat, and could hardly credit the
evidence of my senses when I beheld a little infant, the period
of whose birth could not have extended back many days, paddling
about as if it had just risen to the surface, after being hatched
into existence at the bottom. Occasionally, the delighted parent
reached out her hand towards it, when the little thing, uttering
a faint cry, and striking out its tiny limbs, would sidle for the
rock, and the next moment be clasped to its mother's bosom. This
was repeated again and again, the baby remaining in the stream
about a minute at a time. Once or twice it made wry faces at
swallowing a mouthful of water, and choked a spluttered as if on
the point of strangling. At such times however, the mother
snatched it up and by a process scarcely to be mentioned obliged
it to eject the fluid. For several weeks afterwards I observed
this woman bringing her child down to the stream regularly every
day, in the cool of the morning and evening and treating it to a
bath. No wonder that the South Sea Islanders are so amphibious a
race, when they are thus launched into the water as soon as they
see the light. I am convinced that it is as natural for a human
being to swim as it is for a duck. And yet in civilized
communities how many able-bodied individuals die, like so many
drowning kittens, from the occurrence of the most trivial
accidents!

. . . . . . . .

The long luxuriant and glossy tresses of the Typee damsels often
attracted my admiration. A fine head of hair is the pride and
joy of every woman's heart. Whether against the express will of
Providence, it is twisted upon the crown of the head and there
coiled away like a rope on a ship's deck; whether it be stuck
behind the ears and hangs down like the swag of a small
window-curtain; or whether it be permitted to flow over the
shoulders in natural ringlets, it is always the pride of the
owner, and the glory of the toilette.

The Typee girls devote much of their time to the dressing of
their fair and redundant locks. After bathing, as they sometimes
do five or six times every day, the hair is carefully dried, and
if they have been in the sea, invariably washed in fresh water,
and anointed with a highly scented oil extracted from the meat of
the cocoanut. This oil is obtained in great abundance by the
following very simple process:

A large vessel of wood, with holes perforated in the bottom, is
filled with the pounded meat, and exposed to the rays of the sun.
As the oleaginous matter exudes, it falls in drops through the
apertures into a wide-mouthed calabash placed underneath. After
a sufficient quantity has thus been collected, the oil undergoes
a purifying process, and is then poured into the small spherical
shells of the nuts of the moo-tree, which are hollowed out to
receive it. These nuts are then hermetically sealed with a
resinous gum, and the vegetable fragrance of their green rind
soon imparts to the oil a delightful odour. After the lapse of a
few weeks the exterior shell of the nuts becomes quite dry and
hard, and assumes a beautiful carnation tint; and when opened
they are found to be about two-thirds full of an ointment of a
light yellow colour and diffusing the sweetest perfume. This
elegant little odorous globe would not be out of place even upon
the toilette of a queen. Its merits as a preparation for the hair
are undeniable--it imparts to it a superb gloss and a silky
fineness.

Herman Melville