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Chapter Six


CHAPTER SIX

A SPECIMEN OF NAUTICAL ORATORY--CRITICISMS OF THE SAILORS--THE
STARBOARD WATCH ARE GIVEN A HOLIDAY--THE ESCAPE TO THE MOUNTAINS

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

'Now, men, as we are just off a six months' cruise, and have got
through most all our work in port here, I suppose you want to go
ashore.  Well, I mean to give your watch liberty today, so you
may get ready as soon all you please, and go; but understand
this, I am going to give you liberty because I suppose you would
growl like so many old quarter gunners if I didn't; at the same
time, if you'll take my advice, every mother's son of you will
stay aboard and keep out of the way of the bloody cannibals
altogether.  Ten to one, men, if you go ashore, you will get into
some infernal row, and that will be the end of you; for if those
tattooed scoundrels get you a little ways back into their
valleys, they'll nab you--that you may be certain of.  Plenty of
white men have gone ashore here and never been seen any more.  
There was the old Dido, she put in here about two years ago, and
sent one watch off on liberty; they never were heard of again for
a week--the natives swore they didn't know where they were--and
only three of them ever got back to the ship again, and one with
his face damaged for life, for the cursed heathens tattooed a
broad patch clean across his figure-head.  But it will be no use
talking to you, for go you will, that I see plainly; so all I
have to say is, that you need not blame me if the islanders make
a meal of you.  You may stand some chance of escaping them
though, if you keep close about the French encampment,--and are
back to the ship again before sunset.  Keep that much in your
mind, 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 a
call.  At two bells the boat will be manned to take you off, and
the Lord have mercy on you!'

Various were the emotions depicted upon the countenances of the
starboard watch whilst listening to this address; but on its
conclusion there was a general move towards the forecastle, and
we soon were all busily engaged in getting ready for the holiday
so auspiciously announced by the skipper.  During these
preparations his harangue was commented upon in no very measured
terms; and one of the party, after denouncing him as a lying old
son of a seacook who begrudged a fellow a few hours' liberty,
exclaimed with an oath, 'But you don't bounce me out of my
liberty, old chap, for all your yarns; for I would go ashore if
every pebble on the beach was a live coal, and every stick a
gridiron, and the cannibals stood ready to broil me on landing.'

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

But Toby and I had our own game to play, and we availed ourselves
of the confusion which always reigns among a ship's company
preparatory to going ashore, to confer together and complete our
arrangements.  As our object was to effect as rapid a flight as
possible to the mountains, we determined not to encumber
ourselves with any superfluous apparel; and accordingly, while
the rest were rigging themselves out with some idea of making a
display, we were content to put on new stout duck trousers,
serviceable pumps, and heavy Havre-frocks, which with a Payta hat
completed our equipment.

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

It may appear singular that we should have been thus on our guard
with our own shipmates; but there were some among us who, had
they possessed the least inkling of our project, would, for a
paltry hope of reward, have immediately communicated it to the
captain.

As soon as two bells were struck, the word was passed for the
liberty-men to get into the boat.  I lingered behind in the
forecastle a moment to take a parting glance at its familiar
features, and just as I was about to ascend to the deck my eye
happened to light on the bread-barge and beef-kid, which
contained the remnants of our last hasty meal.  Although I had
never before thought of providing anything in the way of food for
our expedition, as I fully relied upon the fruits of the island
to sustain us wherever we might wander, yet I could not resist
the inclination I felt to provide luncheon from the relics before
me.  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 frock
in which same simple receptacle I had previously stowed away
several pounds of tobacco and a few yards of cotton
cloth--articles with which I intended to purchase the good-will
of the natives, as soon as we should appear among them after the
departure of our vessel.

This last addition to my stock caused a considerable protuberance
in front, which I abated in a measure by shaking the bits of
bread around my waist, and distributing the plugs of tobacco
among the folds of the garment.  Hardly had I completed these
arrangements when my name was sung out by a dozen voices, and I
sprung upon the deck, where I found all the party in the boat,
and impatient to shove off.  I dropped over the side and seated
myself with the rest of the watch in the stem sheets, while the
poor larboarders shipped their oars, and commenced pulling us
ashore.  This happened to be the rainy season at the islands, and
the heavens had nearly the whole morning betokened one of those
heavy showers which during this period so frequently occur.  The
large drops fell bubbling into the water shortly after our
leaving the ship, and by the time we had affected a landing it
poured down in torrents.  We fled for shelter under cover of an
immense canoe-house which stood hard by the beach, and waited for
the first fury of the storm to pass.

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

This was the opportunity we desired, and Toby and I availed
ourselves of it at once by stealing out of the canoe-house and
plunging into the depths of an extensive grove that was in its
rear.  After ten minutes' rapid progress we gained an open space
from which we could just descry the ridge we intended to mount
looming dimly through the mists of the tropical shower, and
distant from us, as we estimated, something more than a mile.  
Our direct course towards it lay through a rather populous part
of the bay; but desirous as we were of evading the natives and
securing an unmolested retreat to the mountains, we determined,
by taking a circuit through some extensive thickets, to avoid
their vicinity altogether.

The heavy rain that still continued to fall without intermission
favoured our enterprise, as it drove the islanders into their
houses, and prevented any casual meeting with them.  Our heavy
frocks soon became completely saturated with water, and by their
weight, and that of the articles we had concealed beneath them,
not a little impeded our progress.  But it was no time to pause
when at any moment we might be surprised by a body of the
savages, and forced at the very outset to relinquish our
undertaking.

Since leaving the canoe-house we had scarcely exchanged a single
syllable with one another; but when we entered a second narrow
opening in the wood, and again caught sight of the ridge before
us, I took Toby by the arm, and pointing along its sloping
outline to the lofty heights at its extremity, said in a low
tone, 'Now, Toby, not a word, nor a glance backward, till we
stand on the summit of yonder mountain--so no more lingering but
let us shove ahead while we can, and in a few hours' time we may
laugh 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 lets
keep close together, that's all;' and so saying with a bound like
a young roe, he cleared a brook which ran across our path, and
rushed forward with a quick step.

When we arrived within a short distance of the ridge, we were
stopped by a mass of tall yellow reeds, growing together as
thickly as they could stand, and as tough and stubborn as so many
rods of steel; and we perceived, to our chagrin, that they
extended midway up the elevation we proposed to ascend.

For a moment we gazed about us in quest of a more practicable
route; it was, however, at once apparent that there was no
resource but to pierce this thicket of canes at all hazards.  We
now reversed our order of march, I, being the heaviest, taking
the 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 the
canes, and by dint of coaxing and bending them to make some
progress; but a bull-frog might as well have tried to work a
passage through the teeth of a comb, and I gave up the attempt in
despair.

Half wild with meeting an obstacle we had so little anticipated,
I threw myself desperately against it, crushing to the ground the
canes with which I came in contact, and, rising to my feet again,
repeated the action with like effect.  Twenty minutes of this
violent exercise almost exhausted me, but it carried us some way
into the thicket; when Toby, who had been reaping the benefit of
my labours by following close at my heels, proposed to become
pioneer in turn, and accordingly passed ahead with a view of
affording me a respite from my exertions.  As however with his
slight frame he made but bad work of it, I was soon obliged to
resume my old place again.  On we toiled, the perspiration
starting from our bodies in floods, our limbs torn and lacerated
with the splintered fragments of the broken canes, until we had
proceeded perhaps as far as the middle of the brake, when
suddenly it ceased raining, and the atmosphere around us became
close and sultry beyond expression.  The elasticity of the reeds
quickly recovering from the temporary pressure of our bodies,
caused them to spring back to their original position; so that
they closed in upon us as we advanced, and prevented the
circulation of little air which might otherwise have reached us.  
Besides this, their great height completely shut us out from the
view of surrounding objects, and we were not certain but that we
might 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 it
contained into my parched mouth.  But the few drops I managed to
obtain gave me little relief, and I sank down for a moment with a
sort of dogged apathy, from which I was aroused by Toby, who had
devised a plan to free us from the net in which we had become
entangled.

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

I began to think we were fairly snared, and had almost made up my
mind that without a pair of wings we should never be able to
escape from the toils; when all at once I discerned a peep of
daylight through the canes on my right, and, communicating the
joyful tidings to Toby, we both fell to with fresh spirit, and
speedily opening the passage towards it we found ourselves clear
of perplexities, and in the near vicinity of the ridge.  After
resting for a few moments we began the ascent, and after a little
vigorous climbing found ourselves close to its summit.  Instead
however of walking along its ridge, where we should have been in
full view of the natives in the vales beneath, and at a point
where they could easily intercept us were they so inclined, we
cautiously advanced on one side, crawling on our hands and knees,
and screened from observation by the grass through which we
glided, much in the fashion of a couple of serpents.  After an
hour employed in this unpleasant kind of locomotion, we started
to our feet again and pursued our way boldly along the crest of
the ridge.

This salient spur of the lofty elevations that encompassed the
bay rose with a sharp angle from the valleys at its base, and
presented, with the exception of a few steep acclivities, the
appearance of a vast inclined plane, sweeping down towards the
sea from the heights in the distance.  We had ascended it near
the place of its termination and at its lowest point, and now saw
our route to the mountains distinctly defined along its narrow
crest, which was covered with a soft carpet of verdure, and was
in 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, Toby
and I in high spirits were making our way rapidly along the
ridge, when suddenly from the valleys below which lay on either
side of us we heard the distant shouts of the natives, who had
just descried us, and to whom our figures, brought in bold relief
against the sky, were plainly revealed.

Glancing our eyes into these valleys, we perceived their savage
inhabitants hurrying to and fro, seemingly under the influence of
some sudden alarm, and appearing to the eye scarcely bigger than
so many pigmies; while their white thatched dwellings, dwarfed by
the distance, looked like baby-houses.  As we looked down upon
the islanders from our lofty elevation, we experienced a sense of
security; feeling confident that, should they undertake a
pursuit, it would, from the start we now had, prove entirely
fruitless, unless they followed us into the mountains, where we
knew they cared not to venture.

However, we thought it as well to make the most of our time; and
accordingly, where the ground would admit of it, we ran swiftly
along the summit of the ridge, until we were brought to a stand
by a steep cliff, which at first seemed to interpose an effectual
barrier to our farther advance.  By dint of much hard scrambling
however, 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 an
uninterrupted, though at times difficult and dangerous ascent,
during which we had never once turned our faces to the sea, we
found ourselves, about three hours before sunset, standing on the
top of what seemed to be the highest land on the island, an
immense overhanging cliff composed of basaltic rocks, hung round
with parasitical plants.  We must have been more than three
thousand feet above the level of the sea, and the scenery viewed
from this height was magnificent.

The lonely bay of Nukuheva, dotted here and there with the black
hulls of the vessels composing the French squadron, lay reposing
at the base of a circular range of elevations, whose verdant
sides, perforated with deep glens or diversified with smiling
valleys, formed altogether the loveliest view I ever beheld, and
were I to live a hundred years, I shall never forget the feeling
of admiration which I then experienced.


Herman Melville