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- Bloody Tahoa
- Red Moon
- The Darkness of Po
That last night in Marquesan waters, as Cleaves and I sat on the fore-deck of the anchored Jezbel, listening to the talk of Leaping Fire, the Polynesian midshipman, the Bay of Traitors was lit with an eerie glow. Along Taha-uka, from the rockbound shore where the surf hurled its futile rage upon a Bastile of dun-colored stone, to the somnolent lights of Hivaoa dreaming beneath the black thunders of Temetiu, legions of phosphorus battled in green strife.
“Yonder is the isle of Taoha, Menikes.” Leaping Fire was saying, pointing with his tattooed arm toward what seemed a mass of stone rising upon the moonlit night, his speech punctuated by the creaking of the boom as it swung with the slide and heave of the lazy rollers. “In the days before the Christian God came, when Po, the Power of Darkness, ruled the islands, the sea-robbers of Tahiti used to hide their treasures there—somewhere near the High Place and the Vale Where Dead Men Walk.”
“The Vale Where Dead Men Walk,” I echoed. “What is that?”
“A Valley below the High Place. From the sacrificial Altar of Po the old chiefs used to hurl their victims into the gorge—in the days when the island was called Bloody Taoha …”
Once a Polynesian always a Polynesian, and in the South Sea Islander there still lurks a desire for the taste of human flesh. And I imagined that as he spoke Leaping Fire could again hear, not without joy, the savage throbbing of rawhide drums in the dank, purple valleys of Bloody Taoha.
“Is the island still inhabited?” This from Cleaves.
“Yes. Years ago there were more than a thousand warriors on Taoha, but with the white man came plagues and wars—until now there are less than fifty. Mahatma is the chief, but he is slowly drinking himself to death with Kava. Ah, Menikes, the history of Taoha, the dying island is written in blood—and the future … But who knows the future?”
“I’d like to visit the island,” observed Cleaves.
“Do not go to Taoha,” warned Leaping Fire, “It is accursed. All die upon Taoha. And some say—” He paused.
“What?” I urged.
“Some say that the spirits of the Tahitian pirates return from under the earth to guard their treasures …”
Cleaves and I gazed seaward to the isle of tragic history, a bulk of stone that bared its nakedness to the low-hung tropic stars.
“Lay you two to one I can beat you swimming to the island, Rundel,” spoke up Cleaves.
I smiled. “Take you up.”
“It is two miles away!” protested Leaping Fire. “And in the bay are mako and feke—fierce, man-devouring sharks and devil-fish!”
But we would not listen to him; the tales of hidden loot and crimson deeds had stirred our blood.
“I’m for the swim, sharks or no sharks,” said I, without bravado, for I did not realize the danger. “And as long as I’ve been in the tropics I have run across only one devil-fish. I’ll tell you, Cleaves, we’ll see who can reach the High Place first, you taking one end of the island and I the other, equalizing the distance. What do you say?”
“You do not know the way to—” began the Polynesian.
“Perhaps,” interposed Cleaves. “But you will tell us. Moreover, you and a couple of the crew will follow in a whale-boat and wait on the beach to bring us back. The race will be to the High Place and back to the whale-boat, the first one reaching the High Place piling several stones on the altar to let the other know he’s been there.”
That was how it began. Down in the tropics men do queer things. The savage song of the surf on the coral reefs is a tune of lawlessness.
Twenty minutes later Cleaves and I, stripped but for bathing trunks, were descending the gangway-stairs while Leaping Fire and others of the crew lowered a whale-boat.
“I warned you, Menikes,” Leaping Fire called to us sadly from the deck.
And I laughed—for his tales of piracy and the feel of the amorous wind on my body had aroused the sleeping boy within me.
“Ready?” asked Cleaves—and I nodded.
Side by side we plunged into the green bay. The water was mildly cool— old wine to the muscles.
When I returned to the surface I struck out toward the island, which seemed a mass of dark-ridden rocks beneath the fiery Southern Cross. Several yards away, the phosphorus leaping about him, was Cleaves, headed for the northern end of Taoha.
That swim whipped the blood into every fiber and sinew of the being. Thinking little of sharks or devil-fish, I crossed the ruffled Bay of Traitors, and within an hour, a bit sore of thews I confess, I touched the sand on the southern end of the island.
Rarely have I seen such tropical beauty as on Taoha—cool white sands, strewn with sea-weed and curious shells; forests of mangoes, cocoanut-palms and bread-fruit; towering basalt rocks, honeycombed with caves and seeming riven with bronze as countless cascades and waterfalls caught the tarnished argent of the moon.
Following the Polynesian’s instructions, I walked several rods down the beach and found the nearly obliterated trail that he had described, a path leading into a dark hollow.
Across valleys and ridges I sprinted, in the shadow of dripping rocks where the atmosphere was saturated with moisture, beneath feis-plants and the crimson-flowered huta-tree, not infrequently passing ruined paepaes, meager evidence of the gradual death of the little island.
After a trot of about a mile I gained the summit of a hill where red jasmine and orchids bloomed in profusion, and halted, breathless, looking upon what I knew to be the mist-laden Vale Where Dead Men Walk.
Here the stars seemed to hang lower, so low that the smell of them was in the atmosphere. Across the earth depression, stone ledges rose from the deep-sunken valley and the moonlight struck the bare rocks, transforming them from dead matter into living sheets of light.
The Vale Where Dead Men Walk; well named; for a vague Something made me aware of its presence in the air by an imaginary, nevertheless ponderous, weight upon the lungs … as if the souls of the perished sea-robbers surged back upon the valley.
As I slowly descended the ridge— slowly because of a strange reluctance to hurry—I had the uncanny feeling of one invading the dominion of the dead. Even the rank odors of the flowers suggested death.
The ascent of the ledges was not without difficulty; footholds were treacherous and more than once the roots of vines yielded to my weight, leaving me swinging at dizzy heights; but after ten minutes of breathless climbing, I dragged my full six feet over the edge of the High Altar and stood upright beside the Altar of Po.
Evidently Cleaves had not arrived. The decaying altar was bare.
The High Place of Taoha crowned a gorge—a wound that gaped in the stomach of the earth like the heel-mark of a giant conqueror. At the bottom of a sheer drop of ten feet a narrow ledge clung to the stone walls, winding down into the orchid and fern-grown canon where the monster boulders threw their shadows across the rushing stream.
On the side of the gorge opposite where I stood, a cave leered blackly from the rocks, and not far away was the lagoon, flanked with palm-fronds, a connecting link between river and sea. A mild roar insinuated itself upon the air —the combined booming of the gorge stream and the not distant surf.
The savage, lawless splendor exerted over me an awesome spell and my imagination, ever eager to slip its leash, painted sinister figures in the gorge, ghostly shapes that materialized in the maw of the black cave.
Of a sudden the blood began to throb through my head—for no conjuring of the fancy had created those forms; they were real, moving as phantoms upon the background of creepers that sprawled over the walls.
I dropped flat on my stomach, the touch of my skin upon the moist, cold stone sending a quick thrill trickling along my sensory nerves.
The figures, five in number, all lithe of body with the exception of one, crawled stealthily out of the gorge, and when they attained the top of the opposite side were swallowed by the breadfruit and cocoanut-palms.
I continued to stare at the trees where they vanished. Men—islanders from the color of their naked skins—coming from the cave. It was rather intriguing, even insidious, and I immediately determined to penetrate the cave whose jaws had spewn them.
As I swung down from the High Place, dropping on the narrow ledge, I regretted my hasty action. The wiser plan would have been to wait for Cleaves, but I had started, without him, and being young, which is to say stubborn, too, I decided to finish it alone.
More than once during that perilous descent into the gorge did I wish I had abandoned my purpose on the narrow trail below the High Place.
At length, a bit bruised and smarting from contact with the rocks, I found myself before the cave. Its mouth breathed damp, foul odors—the smell of fish and stale salt. A gradual incline went down into its throat, vanishing in somber darkness.
I felt a queer dread of the place as I entered and before I had advanced many yards this aversion increased to terror. In the dank, foul air was an element that inspired in me a sensation similar to the one I had experienced as I crossed the Vale Where Dead Men Walk —the ponderous weight upon the chest.
I wondered if by chance I was exploring a hiding place of the old Tahitian pirates, and if, in this gullet of darkness, I would stumble upon chests of loot—green with the rust and mold of ages. These thoughts, fanciful though they were, lured me on, drew me as in response to a magnet, deeper into the bowels of the earth.
I could hear a distant booming—like the surf upon the rocks. Other than that, and a drip-drip-drip of water somewhere in the unseen cavity, it ached with the stillness of a sepulchre.
After fully three minutes of groping forward my outstretched hands came into contact with a fungi-grown wall and as I turned to the left, my fingers slipping over the damp surface, I saw a broad strip of anæmic light streaking the darkness. It was very singular, such an illumination, apparently born of itself in the cavern, and I stood motionless, trying to discover its source.
It was a noise that moved me—a groan—such as I once heard from the throat of a wounded devil-fish—a sound thrice hideous in the darksome cave. Had I coughed the following moment my heart would have lain upon the floor.
From the vague light the groan had come, causing me to take an involuntary step—and not in the direction of the streak of illumination. I wanted to bolt it, but instead I forced myself to wait for a repetition of the noise, and when a moment had passed in silence, emboldened by the hush, I moved toward the strange glow.
As I reached it I almost laughed. In the ceiling of the cave was a gap of great depth and breadth that admitted the moonlight, thus creating the singular and startling pillar of light. Stars were visible, too—no longer low-hung, but seeming at distances illimitable.
I had almost forgotten the terrible groan in my discovery when it was repeated, weaker, nevertheless stirring the hair on my scalp.
My eyes swept the shadows that hugged the pillar of light, and now, somewhat accustomed to the gloom, I could make out many square shapes beyond the glow—objects that I perceived to be nothing less than sea-chests.
The sight of them quickened my pulse. Iron-bound sea-chests; rusty locks; doubloons …
I could not reach the nearest chest quick enough and as my fingers found the lock they trembled violently. To my surprise the lid yielded—but not without a shrill of protest from the ancient hinges.
I moved to the next one. Following the shriek of the unoiled iron, sheer horror drove its rapier the length of my body. I drew back, terrified, yet fascinated.
In the huge sea-chest, face upturned, was a man.
The story continues … who is the man in the sea-chest and what mystery does Bloody Taoha hold?
- Bloody Tahoa
- Red Moon
- The Darkness of Po