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Chapter XVII The Story of Afitā

TOWARDS sunset, when the Bounty was still some thirty miles distant from the land, the trade-wind as usual died away, and by eight in the evening the new moon shone over a sea as calm as a mountain lake. Fearing that the easterly current would set the ship back in the night during the continuance of the calm, Christian and Young had carefully taken the ship's bearings just as the pale blue of the distant island was changing to a shade of purple under the rays of the setting sun.

The knowledge that their long search was ended at last inspirited every one on board. After supper the men gathered on the main deck, and with their wives and their brown-skinned shipmates forgot the weary days which had tried their tempers and forbearance so severely. Alrema, who had an influence upon her countrymen almost equal to that of Mahina, was in high spirits, and Young, despite his usual seeming indifference to her vivacity and beauty, was yet secretly pleased to see the respect with which she

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was treated by the others. Her conduct during the attack on the fort at Tubuai had shown her to be possessed of a fiery, undaunted courage; indeed, had the murmurers known that this beautiful Tahitian girl with the dark, languorous eyes, and soft red lips had advised Young to induce Christian to shoot them, they would have remembered the incident of the bloody cutlass, and been more careful of their speech in her hearing. Yet now she seemed but a merry-hearted, mirth-loving girl, and as she raised her sweet voice in some old Tahitian love-song, while her eyes sought those of Edward Young, the men were struck with her bright and animated beauty.

Tired of singing and talking with the group assembled on the main-deck, she presently ascended to the poop, where her husband sat with Christian and Mahina discussing their plans for the future.

She seated herself beside Young, and listened till they ceased talking—then said, clasping Mahina's hand in her own, “Tell us, oh friend of my heart, the story of this land of Afitā.”

“Nay,” replied Mahina, smiling and stroking Alrema's dark hair, “ 'tis but little I know, and that little did I learn from my mother; but call hither Tairoa-Maina, and let him tell the story, for he hath more knowledge of Afitā than I.”

Christian's consent having been gained, the Tubuaian chief was called upon the poop, and sat in front of the little group with his two faithful attendants behind him; his swart, handsome features lit up with pleasure when he was told what was wanted of him.

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“Kirisiani,” said Mahina, caressing her husband's cheek with her soft, brown hand, “but for this dear friend, Tairoa-Maina, still might we have been searching for this land of his and my father's.”

“True,” answered Christian frankly, “but for him we might perhaps have never found it. Thou seest, Mahina, that in some things the white men have not the knowledge nor judgment of thy people.”

“Even so,” she answered gravely, “we have no such things as those tuhi note of thine which are full of wisdom. And it is strange to us that by looking at some little black marks thou couldst tell us of the sea chief who saw the land of Afitā thirty years ago. Yet, though we have no wise men among us like thee and the great Tuti and Pirai, we have memories and songs and tales which have come down from father to son; and all that is told is remembered by the children, and they, when they grow up, tell it to their children, so that all may know the beginning of things since Taaroa the father of the gods and his two sons Oro and Tane made the world.”

Acquainted as he was in some degree with the wild and fabulous nature of almost every Polynesian tradition bearing upon the ancestry of the people, Christian was convinced by the many long conversations he had held with Mahina about her descent that much of what she told him had a basis of fact. The Tahitian custom of deifying their ancestors would naturally result in confusing historical facts and rendering them absurd, but his keen observation and quickly acquired

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knowledge of the Tahitian tongue enabled him to sift out in a great measure the real from the fabulous and visionary. He therefore, while listening to Tairoa-Maina's story of Afitā, quickly divested it of all that was mythological and fictitious, and accepted the substance of it as fact.

To his mind much of what Mahina told him of Afitā had appeared no more than the vague traditions of native legend, but as he listened to the Tubuaian chief's story he found a remarkable resemblance between the two accounts.

Sitting in the light of the moon, which fell upon his symmetrical head and shoulders and revealed the curious and delicate tracery of the tattooing upon his polished skin, the young chief related the Tubuaian story about the land and the people whence he came.

“Long, long ago, Kirisiani, Taaroa the Sky-Producer, and Oro and Tane his sons, between them created new lands by dipping their hands to the bottom of the deep sea and dragging them up above the surface, so that the trees might grow and men live upon them. In those days there dwelt upon Huahine a taata paari (wise man) named Poiata, who had himself been created by the gods, and his wife Mahinihini. In the same house lived Rumia and his wife Motupapa; only these four were on Huahine. At the end of two years neither of the women had borne a child to their husbands, and Poiata and Rumia, assailing them with bitter words and blows, drove them away to the sea-shore, and bade them go swim out into the ocean and drown.

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“ ‘Nay,’ cried Mahinihini, ‘give us a canoe, so that at least we may seek some other land and hide the shame of our childlessness.’ ”

“But Poiata and Rumia laughed and jeered at them, and pointing to a great shark that lay upon the water outside the reef, mockingly bade them hold on to its fin and begone.

“Now this shark was Tahua;note and the two women, who wept as they swam, approached him silently, and clambering upon his great back, held on to his fin while Tahua sped away with them.

“For many days he swam southward and eastward, till Mahinihini and Motupapa saw, rising out of the sea, what seemed the fin of another great shark; so high was it that it pierced the clouds, even as does the peak of Orohena. But when they drew near they saw that it was land rising up steeply from the deep sea, and on the high cliffs there stood strange men with yellowish faces and circlets of red and green parrots' feathers round their foreheads. As the two women gazed in fear and trembling, Tahua the shark sank from beneath them, and they struck out and swam to the shore. The strange men ran down the cliffs and helped them to land, and gave them food to eat and coconuts to drink. Seven men were they, and they said they came from a great country to the east where the mountain-tops were for ever covered with white clouds.”

“How came they there?” asked Christian.

Tairoa-Maina shook his head. “No man knoweth.

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But they were pleased to see Motupapa and Mahinihini, for there were no women with them on the island, which they had named Afitā—‘the land shot up by fire from the bottom of the sea.’ So these two women became wives to the seven men, and they bore seven children to each man. By and by, as the years passed on, there came more of the strange people from the great eastern land; and they were pleased with the beauty of Afitā and the great richness of the land, and dwelt with Mahinihini and Motupapa and their husbands. Very joyously they lived together, until the people grew so in number that breadfruit and taro and yams and plantains began to be scarce because of the many mouths of children who cried with hunger. And when the land would no longer hold them and famine came, twenty-and-two score men and women sailed far away in canoes to seek another home. Westward they sailed for ten days till a storm separated them, and four of the canoes came to the land of Tubuai, and four to the land of Rapa.note Of those that reached the land of Rapa I know nought, save that the chief was named Teata-rua; but of those that came to Tubuai my father was one.”

“And did he ever tell thee how appeared this Afitā, this lonely island that springeth up from the sea like the fin of a shark that swimmeth on the surface?” asked Mahina.

“I have heard my father say,” answered the chief, “that so steep are its mountains that they shut in from

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the winds the rich soil of the belly of the land; and down the sides of the hills run many streams of water sweet to drink. And save in one place no reef ran out from the shore.”

“That does not agree with Carteret,” said Young to Christian.

“And the great ocean rollers,” added Mahina, “for ever dashed up against the face of the cliffs so that no strangers could land in their canoes, else would they be broken to pieces in the angry surf.”

“But still there is one little spot on the north and north-west,” continued the Tubuaian chief, “so small that only those who have lived in Afitā can find it, where the sea is not always rough. And on the eastern side there is a small bay, where, when the wind is from the west and south, the sea is quiet, and a deeply-laden canoe can land with safety.”

“Is the water deep?” asked Christian.

“Aye, so deep is it, that five fathoms from the shore the water is as blue as the deep ocean; and close to the high cliffs swim great fish that we in Tubuai catch only with lines a hundred fathoms in length. Ah, Kirisiani, to-morrow wilt thou see if Mahina and I have told thee aught but the truth.”

As the pleasant tones of the chief's voice ceased there came a gentle puff of air, which filled the ship's upper canvas, and Christian and Young sprang to their feet, quickly followed by the natives, and trimmed the sails for the coming breeze.

For three or four hours the Bounty slid softly over a moonlit sea; then as dawn broke and the red sun

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sprang from the horizon, Fletcher Christian and his comrades saw the island for which they had so long sought lying before them bright and shining green upon the sunlit sea.

An hour later the ship was hove-to as close to the land as her safety permitted, and Christian, in her one boat with Taiaro-Maina and some white seamen, was searching for the only little bay where it was thought a landing might be effected.