CHAPTER XIII. THE SOUTH SEA ISLANDS.
As soon as we touched the shore the men rushed forward to meet us, and to shake hands, and, having left the muskets and revolvers judiciously out of sight in the boat, we were conducted to a cluster of huts, made of branches, or rather leaves, of the palm-tree, tied by their foot-stalks across two poles, and hanging down to the ground. Here we were met by the women and children, who, likewise, all went through the ceremony of shaking hands with us, after which the head-woman, who was very good-looking, and was dressed in a cherry-coloured calico gown, with two long plaits of black hair hanging down her back, spread a mat for me to sit upon just outside the hut. By this time there was quite a little crowd of people assembled round, amongst whom I noticed one woman with a baby, who had her hair sticking straight out all round her head, and another who held a portion of her dress constantly before her face. After the gentlemen had walked away she removed the cloth, and I then saw that her nose had been cut off. Most of the women were good-looking, with dark complexions and quantities of well-greased, neatly-plaited black hair, but we did not see a single young girl, though there were plenty of children and babies, and lots of boys, the latter of whom, like some of the older women, had only a piece of palm matting round their loins. We therefore came to the conclusion that the girls must have been sent away intentionally when the approach of the yacht was observed.
As soon as I was seated, the head-woman told one of the men to knock down some cocoa-nuts from the trees close by, and after cutting off the ends she offered us a drink of the fresh cool milk, which was all the sweeter and better for the fact that the nuts were not nearly ripe. While this was going on, the natives brought piles of cocoa-nuts, fish, and fowls, and laid them at our feet as a present. Some of the fish were of a dark brown colour, like bream, others were long and thin, with a pipe-like nose and four fins, somewhat resembling the wings of a flying-fish.
Seeing smoke in the distance, rising from under some high palm-trees, we thought we should like to go and see whence it proceeded, and accordingly set off to walk through a sort of bush, over sharp coral that cut one's boots terribly, the sun blazing down upon us fiercely all the time, until we reached a little settlement, consisting of several huts, the inhabitants of which were absent. Fine plaited mats for beds, cocoa-nut shells for cups, mother-of-pearl shells for plates, and coral, of various kinds and shapes, for dishes and cooking utensils, formed their only furniture. We saw three women, one very old, with nothing but a palm-leaf mat as a covering, the others dressed in the apparently universal costume, consisting of a long bright-coloured gown, put into a yoke at the shoulders, and flowing thence loosely to the ground, which completely conceals the wearer's form, even to the tips of her toes. I think these dresses must come from England or America, for they are evidently machine-made, and the cotton-stuft of which they are composed has the most extraordinary patterns printed on it I ever saw. Cherry and white, dark blue and yellow or white stripes, red with yellow spots, and blue with yellow crosses, appear to be the favourite designs. The women seemed gentle and kind, and were delighted with some beads, looking-glasses, and knives I gave them, in return for which they brought us quantities of beautiful shells.
We saw the large iron knee of a vessel in one spot during our walk, and wondered how it came there. In another place we saw a canoe in process of construction, ingeniously made of boards, sewed together with plaited palm-leaves. The canoes in use here are very high, long, and narrow, and are only kept from upsetting by means of a tremendous outrigger, consisting of a log fastened to the extremity of two bent pieces of wood, projecting sideways from each end of the boat. The only animals we met with in our ramble were four pigs and a few chickens, and no other live stock of any kind was visible. No attempt seemed to be made at the cultivation of the ground; and I think, if there had been, we must have observed it, for our party separated and walked a good distance in various directions.
The natives made us understand that on the other side of the entrance to the lagoon, in the better sort of house we had noticed, there resided a white man. He did not, however, make his appearance during our visit, and I imagine he must have been one of those individuals called 'beach-combers,' referred to in so many of the books that treat of the South Sea Islands, - a sort of ne'er-do-well Englishman or American, rather afraid of meeting any of his own countrymen, but very clever at making a bargain between a ship's crew and the natives, with considerable profit to himself.
Among the bushes we found numbers of large hermit-crabs, crawling, or rather running, about in whelk shells, half a dozen of them occasionally having a grand fight amongst themselves. We picked up at least twenty different sorts of gracefully shaped pieces of coral, and quantities of shells of an infinite variety of form and colour; cowries, helmet-shells, the shells from which cameos are sometimes cut; mother-of-pearl shells, and a large spiral univalve, nearly a foot long, with dark brown spots and stripes on a delicate cream-coloured ground, like the skin of a tiger or leopard. On our way back to the huts we peeped into several of the canoes drawn up on the beach, in which were some fish-spears and a fish-hook, nearly three inches long, made of solid mother-of-pearl, the natural curve of the shell from which it was cut being preserved. A piece of bone was securely fastened to it by means of some pig's hair, but there was no bait, and it seems that the glitter of the mother-of-pearl alone serves as a sufficient allurement to the fish.