Page:A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War.djvu/292

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Now a large number make their living by diving for the great pearl shell-oysters, which are found in many of the lagoons at a depth of from ten to twenty fathoms, attached to the coral-rock by a strong byssus—i.e., a bunch of silky golden-brown filaments, which the diver cuts with his knife, and so secures his prize. This silken cable is attached to the muscle of the fish itself, and passes through an aperture at the hinge. An expert diver can remain under water for about three minutes. In some of the isles women are accounted the most skilful divers, especially in deep water, where the largest shells are found, some actually measuring eighteen inches across—such beautiful great shields of gleaming mother-of-pearl.

The pearls themselves are not very abundant, and are generally found in the less perfect shells, the inmates of which are either sickly or have inadvertently admitted grains of coral-sand, which they have been unable to eject. But sometimes the large healthy shells contain one beautiful perfect pearl, not lodged in the muscle in the ordinary way, but lying loose in the shell; and though it is certain that many are lost through carelessness, a considerable number have taken high rank among the noted pearls of the civilised world. I believe that those composing the Empress Eugénie's splendid necklace were collected in the Paumotus, and that Queen Victoria's pearl, which is valued at £6000, was also found there. In heathen days all the best pearls were treasured in the idol temples, and some of the early adventurers are known to have made a very lucrative business by exchanging cheap muskets for bags of pearls. The same disease or discomfort which produces these lovely gems often takes a form less valued, but still very beautiful—large distorted pearly lumps, often the size of two joints of the little finger, and assuming all manner of quaint forms, sometimes resembling a human hand. I have seen some which had been set as pins and brooches, which I thought very attractive.

These, however, like the pearls themselves, are the accidental prizes of the divers. The regular article of traffic is the shell itself, which the traders buy from the natives at an average of £15 per ton, and sell in London at an average of over £100. They