Both the mother and Flower argued with me that I should make Many Daughters my wife during my stay in Atuona, and if not the leper lass, then another friend they had chosen for me. Flower herself had done me the honor of proposing a temporary alliance, but I had persuaded her that I was not worthy of her beauty and talents. Any plea that it was not according to my code, of even that it was un-Christian, provoked peals of laughter from all who heard it; sooth to say, the whites laughed loudest.
Beneath a thatch of palm-leaves Lam Kai Oo was drying cocoanuts. His withered yellow body straddled a kind of bench, to which was fixed a sharp-pointed stick of iron-wood. Seizing each nut in his claw-like hands, he pushed it against this point, turning and twisting it as he ripped off the thick and fibrous husk. Then he cracked each nut in half with a well-directed blow of a heavy knife. For the best copra-making, the half-nuts should be placed in the sun, concave side up. As the meats begin to dry, they shrink away from the shell and are readily removed, being then copra, the foundation of the many toilet preparations, soaps and creams, that are made from cocoa-oil.
As it rains much in the Marquesas, the drying is often done in ovens, though sun-dried copra commands a higher price. Lam Kai Oo was operating such an oven, a simple affair of stones cemented with mud, over which had been erected a shed of palm-trunks and thatch. The halved cocoanuts were placed in cups made of mud and laid on wooden racks above the oven. With the doors closed, a fire was built in the stone furnace and fed from the outside with cocoa-husks and brush. Such an oven does not dry the nuts uniformly. The smoke turns them dark, and oil made from them contains undesirable creosote. Hot-water pipes are the best source of heat, except the sun, but Lam Kai Oo was paying again for his poverty, as the poor man must do the world over.
Forty-four years earlier he had left California, after having given seven years of his life to building American railways. The smoke of the Civil War had hardly cleared away when Captain Hart had persuaded him, Ah Yu and other California Chinese to come to Hiva-oa, and put their labor into his cotton plantations. Cannibalism was common at that date. I asked the old man if he had witnessed it.
“My see plenty fella eatee,” he replied. “Kanaka no likee Chineeman. Him speak bad meatee.”
He told me how on one occasion the Lord had saved him from drowning. With a lay brother of the Catholic Mission, he had been en route to Vait-hua in a canoe with many natives. There was to be a church feast, and Lam Kai Oo was carrying six hundred Chile piastres to back his skill against the natives in gambling; Lam, of course, to operate the wheel of supposed chance.
The boat capsized in deep water. The lay brother could not swim, but was lifted to the keel of the upturned boat, while the others clung to its edges. He prayed for hours, while the others, lifting their faces above the storming waves, cried hearty amens to his supplications. Finally the waves washed them into shallow water. The brother gave earnest thanks for deliverance, but Lam thought that the same magic should give him back the six hundred pieces of silver that had gone into the sea.