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Atolls of the Sun

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
“NOUS partons! We air off—off!” shouted Capitaine Moet, gaily, as the Marara, the schooner Flying Fish, slipped through the narrow, treacherous pass of the barrier-reef of Papeete Harbor. “Mon ami, you weel by ’n’ by say dam Moet for take you to ze Iles Dangereuses. You air goin’ to ze worse climate in ze sacré mundo. Eet ees hot and ze win’ blow many time like ’urricane. An’ you nevaire wash, because ze wataire ees salt como se o-c-ean.” We had waited for a wafting breeze all afternoon, the brown crew alert to raise the anchor at every zephyr, but it was almost dark when we were clear of the reef and, with all sails raised, fair on our voyage to the mysterious atolls of the Paumotu Archipelago. Often I had planned that pilgrimage in my long stay in Tahiti. At the Cercle Bougainville, the business club, where the pearl and shell traders and the copra buyers drank their rum and Doctor Funks, I had heard many stories of a nature in these Paumotus strangely different of aspect from all other parts of the world, of a native people who had amazing knowledge of the secrets of the sea and its inhabitants, and of white dwellers altered by residence there to a pattern very contrary from other whites. For scores of years these traders and sailors or their forerunners had played all the tricks of commerce on the Paumotuans, and they laughed reminiscently over them; yet they hinted of demons there, of ghosts that soared and whistled, and of dancers they had seen transfixed in the air. What was true or untrue I had not known; nor had they, I believed. Llewellyn, the Welsh-Tahitian gentleman, after four or five glasses of Pernoud, would ask, “Do you know why the Paumotus are unearthly?” and would answer in the same liquorish breath, “Because they haven’t any earth about them. They’re all white bones.” Woronick, the Parisian expert in pearls, referred often to the wonderful jewel he had bought in Takaroa from a Paumotuan, and the fortune he had made on it. “That pearl was made by God and fish and man, and how it was grown and Tepeva a Tepeva got it, is a something to learn; unique. It is bizarre, effrayant. I will not recite it here, for you must go to Takaroa to hear it.” And Lying Bill and McHenry, in a score of vivid phrases, told of the cyclones that had swept entire populations into the sea, felled the trees of scores of years’ growth, and left the bare atoll as when first it emerged from the depths. “I knew a Dane who rode over Anaa on a tree like a bloody ’orse on the turf,” said Lying Bill to me, with a frightening bang of his tumbler on the table. “’E was caught by the top of a big wave, an’ away ’e drove from one side of the bleedin’ island to the other, and come right side up. A bit ’urt in the ’ead, ’e was, but able to take ’is bloomin’ oath on what ’appened.” I had not depended on these raconteurs for a vicarious understanding of the Paumotus; for I had read and noted all that I could find in books and calendars about them, but yet I had felt that these unlettered actors in the real dramas laid there gave me a valid picture. My hopes were fixed in finding in spirit what they saw only materially.