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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWe And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 2 - Chapter 11
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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 2 - Chapter 11 Post by :tinabarr4 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :2362

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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 2 - Chapter 11

PART II CHAPTER XI

"Roose the fair day at e'en."
Scotch Proverb.


After leaving New York, we no longer hugged the coast. We stood right off, and to my great delight, I found we were going to put in at Bermuda for repairs. I never knew, but I always fancy that these were done cheaper there than at New York. Or it may merely have been because when we had been at sea two days the wretched _Slut leaked so that, though we were pumping day and night, till we were nearly worn out, we couldn't keep the wet from the gimcrack cargo.

Fortunately for us the weather was absolutely lovely, and though it was hot by day, we wore uncommonly little clothing, and "carried our change of air with us," as Dennis said.

As to the nights, I never can forget the ideal beauty of the last three before we reached Bermuda. I had had no conception of what starlight can be and what stars can look like. These hanging lamps of the vast heavens seemed so strangely different from the stars that "twinkle, twinkle," as the nursery book has it, through our misty skies at home. We were, in short, approaching the tropics. Very beautiful were the strange constellations of the midnight sky, the magic loveliness of the moonlight, and the phosphorescence of the warm waves, whilst the last exquisite touch of delight was given by the balmy air. By day the heat (especially as we had to work so hard in it) made one's enjoyment less luxurious, but if my love for the sea had known no touch of disappointment on the cold swell of the northern Atlantic, it would have needed very dire discomfort to spoil the pleasure of living on these ever-varying blue waters, flecked with white foam and foam-like birds, through the clearness of which we now and then got a peep of a peacock-green dolphin, changing his colour with every leap and gambol, as if he were himself a wave.

Of living things (and, for that matter, of ships) we saw far less than I expected, though it was more than a fortnight from the time of our leaving Sandy Hook to the night we lay off to the east of the Bermudas--the warm lights from human habitations twinkling among the islands, and the cold light of the moon making the surf and coral reefs doubly clear against the dark waters--waiting, but scarcely wishing, for the day.

As I have said, Alfonso was very black, and Alfonso was very dignified. But his blackness, compared with the blackness of the pilot who came off at St. George's Island, and piloted us through the Narrows, was as that of a kid shoe to a boot that has been polished by blacking. As to dignity, no comparison can be made. The dignity of that nigger pilot exceeded anything, regal, municipal, or even parochial, that I have ever seen. As he came up the ship's side, Dennis was looking over it, and when the pilot stood on deck Dennis fled abruptly, and Alister declares it took two buckets of water to recover him from the fit of hysterics in which he found him rolling in the forecastle.

The pilot's costume bore even more reference to his dignity than to the weather. He wore a pea-coat, a tall and very shiny black hat, white trousers, and neither shoes nor socks. His feet were like flat-irons turned the wrong way, and his legs seemed to be slipped into the middle of them, like the handles of two queer-shaped hoes. His intense, magnificent importance, and the bombastic way he swaggered about the deck, were so perfectly absurd, that we three youngsters should probably have never had any feeling towards him but that of contempt, if it had not been that we were now quite enough of seamen to appreciate the skill with which he took us safely on our dangerous and intricate passage into harbour. How we ever got through the Narrows, how he picked our way amongst the reefs and islands, was a marvel. We came in so close to shore that I thought we must strike every instant, and so we should have done had there been any blundering on his part.

We went very slowly that day, as became the atmosphere and the scene, the dangers of our way, and the dignity of our guide.

"It's an ill wind that blows nobody good," said Dennis, as we hung over the side. "If it's for repairs we've put into Paradise, long life to the old tub and her rotten timbers! I wouldn't have missed _this for a lady's berth in the West Indian Mail, and my passage paid!"

"Nor I."

"Nor I."

_This was indeed worth having gone through a good deal to see. The channel through which we picked our way was marked out by little buoys, half white and half black, and on either side the coral was just awash. Close at hand the water was emerald green or rosy purple, according to its depth and the growths below; half-a-mile away it was deep blue against lines of dazzling surf and coral sand; and the reefs and rocks amongst whose deadly edges our hideous pilot steered for our lives, were like beds of flowers blooming under water. Red, purple, yellow, orange, pale green, dark green, in patches quite milky, and in patches a mass of all sorts of sea-weed, a gay garden on a white ground, shimmering through crystal! And down below the crabs crawled about, and the fishes shot hither and thither; and over the surface of the water, from reef to reef and island to island, the tern and sea-gulls skimmed and swooped about.

We anchored that evening, and the pilot went ashore. Lovely as the day had been, we were (for some mysterious reason) more tired at the end of it than on days when we had been working three times as hard. This, with Dennis, invariably led to mischief, and with Alister to intolerance. The phase was quite familiar to me now, and I knew it was coming on when they would talk about the pilot. That the pilot was admirably skilful in his trade, and that he was a most comical-looking specimen of humanity, were obvious facts. I quite agreed with both Alister and Dennis, but that, unfortunately, did not make them agree with each other. Not that Dennis contradicted Alister (he pretended to be afraid to do so), but he made comments that were highly aggravating. He did not attempt to deny that it was "a gran' sight to see ony man do his wark weel," or that the African negro shared with us "our common humanity and our immortal hopes," but he introduced the quite irrelevant question of whether it was not a loss to the Presbyterian Ministry that Alister had gone to sea. He warmly allowed that the pilot probably had his feelings, and added that even he had his; that the Hat tried them, but that the Feet were "altogether too many for them intirely." He received the information that the pilot's feet were "as his Creator made them," in respectful silence, and a few minutes afterwards asked me if I was aware of the "curious fact in physiology," that it took a surgical operation to get a joke through a Scotchman's brain-pan.

I was feeling all-overish and rather cross myself towards evening, and found Alister's cantankerousness and Dennis O'Moore's chaff almost equally tiresome. To make matters worse, I perceived that Dennis was now so on edge, that to catch sight of the black pilot made him really hysterical, and the distracting thing was, that either because I was done up, or because such folly is far more contagious than any amount of wisdom, I began to get quite as bad, and Alister's disgust only made me worse. I unfeignedly dreaded the approach of that black hat and those triangular feet, for they made me giggle in spite of myself, and I knew a ship's rules far too well not to know how fearful would be the result of any public exhibition of disrespect.

However, we three were not always together, and we had been apart a good bit when we met (as ill-luck would have it) at the moment when the pilot's boat was just alongside, ready for his departure.

"What's the boat for?" asked Alister, who had been below.

"And who would it be for," replied Dennis, "but the gentleman in the black hat? Alister, dear! what's the reason I can't tread on a nigger's heels without treading on your toes?"

"Hush!" cried I, in torment, "he's coming."

We stood at attention, but never can I forget the agony of the next few minutes. That hat, that face, those flat black feet, that strut, that smile. I felt a sob of laughter beginning somewhere about my waist-belt, and yet my heart ached with fear for Dennis. Oh, if only His Magnificence would move a little quicker, and let us have it over!

There's a fish at Bermuda that is known as the toad-fish (so Alfonso told me), and when you tickle it it blows itself out after the manner of the frog who tried to be as big as an ox. It becomes as round as a football, and if you throw it on the water it floats. If you touch it it sounds (according to Alfonso) "all same as a banjo." It will live some time out of water; and if it shows any signs of subsiding, another tickle will blow it out again. "Too muchee tickle him burst," said Alfonso. I had heard this decidedly nasty story just before the pilot's departure, and it was now the culmination of all the foolish thoughts that gibbered in my head. I couldn't help thinking of it as I held my breath to suppress my laughter, and quaked for the yet more volatile Dennis. Oh, dear! Why wouldn't that mass of absurdity walk quicker? His feet were big enough. Meanwhile we stood like mutes--eyes front! To have looked at each other would have been fatal. "Too muchee tickle him burst." I hope we looked grave (I have little doubt now that we looked as if we were having our photographs taken). The sob had mounted from my waist to my throat. My teeth were set, my eyes watered, but the pilot was here now. In a moment he would be down the side. With an excess of zeal I found strength to raise my hand for a salute.

I fear it was this that pleased him, and made him stop; and we couldn't help looking at him. His hat was a little set back for the heat, his black triangular feet were in the third position of dancing. He smiled.

There was an explosive sound to my right. I knew what it meant. Dennis had "burst."

And then I never felt less like laughing in my life. Visions of insubordination, disrespect, mutiny, flogging, and black-hole, rushed through my head, and I had serious thoughts of falling on my knees before the insulted pilot. With unfeigned gratitude I record that he was as magnanimous as he was magnificent. He took no revenge, except in words. What he said was,

"Me one coloured gentleman. You one dam mean white trash ob common sailor. YAH!"

And with unimpaired dignity he descended the ladder and was rowed away over the prismatic waters. And Alister and I turned round to look for Dennis, and found him sitting in the scuppers, wiping the laughter-tears out of his thick eyelashes.

There was something fateful about that evening, which was perhaps what made the air so heavy. If I had been keeping the log, I should have made the following entry: "Captain got drunk. A ring round the moon. Alister and Dennis quarrelsome."

I saw the ring round the moon when I was rowing the captain and the mate back from one of the islands, where they had been ashore. Alfonso afterwards pointed it out to me and said, "Tell you, Jack, I'm glad dis ole tub in harbour now!" from which I concluded that it was an omen of bad weather.

Alister and Dennis were still sparring. I began to think we'd better stretch a rope and let them have it out with their fists, but I could not make out that there was anything to fight about except that Alister had accused Dennis of playing the fool, and Dennis had said that Alister was about as good company as a grave-digger. I felt very feverish and said so, on which they both began to apologize, and we all turned in for some sleep.

Next day we were the best of friends, and we got leave to go ashore for a few hours. We were anchored in Grassy Bay, off Ireland Island--that is, off the island where the hulks are, and where the school-master spent those ten long years. Alister and Dennis wanted to take a boat and make for Harrington Sound, a very beautiful land-locked sheet of water, with one narrow entrance through which the tide rushes like a mill-race, but when they heard my reason for wanting to have a look at my friend's old place of labour and imprisonment, they decided to stay with me, which, as it happened, was very lucky for us all.

We were all three so languid, that though there was much to see and little time in which to see it, when we found three firm and comfortable resting-places among the blocks of white stone in the dockyard, we sat down on them, and contented ourselves with enjoying the beautiful prospect before us. And it so happened that as Dennis said, "if we'd taken a box for the Opera" we could not have placed ourselves better for the marvellous spectacle that it was our good luck to witness. I must try and tell it in order.

The first thing we noticed was a change among the sea-birds. They left their careless, graceful skimming and swooping, and got into groups, wheeling about like starlings, and uttering curious cries. And scarcely had we become conscious of this change among the birds, than a simultaneous flutter ran through the Bermudian "rig-boats" which had been skimming with equal carelessness about the bay. Now they were hurriedly thrown up into the wind, their wide mainsails lowered and reefed, whilst the impulse spread as if by magic to the men-of-war and ships in the anchorage. Down came the sails like falling leaves, the rigging swarmed with men bracing yards, lowering top-gallant masts, and preparing--we could not conceive for what.

"What, in the name of fortune--" said Dennis.

But at this moment Alister cried, "Look behind ye, man!"

We turned round, and this was what we saw:--

The sky out to seaward was one great half-circle of blue-black, but in what sailors call the eye of the storm was another very regular patch, with true curved outlines of the arc and the horizon. Under this the sea was dazzlingly white, and then in front of that it was a curious green-black, and it was tossing and flopping about as if it did not know what to be at. The wind was scarcely to be felt as wind, but we could hear it moaning in a dull way that was indescribably terrifying. Gradually the blackness seemed to come down over us as if it would swallow us up, and when I looked back to the bay not a bird was to be seen, and every boat was flying into shelter.

And as they fled, there arose from the empty sea and sky a strange hissing sound, which gradually grew so intense that it became almost a roar; and, as the noise increased, the white line on the horizon widened and widened.

Suddenly there came a lull. It quite startled us. But about half-a-mile away, I could see over Alister's shoulders that the clouds were blacker, and the sea took up the colour and seemed to heave and rock more sulkily than before. There was no white water here, only a greenish ink. And at the same moment Dennis and Alister each laid a hand upon my arm, but none of us spoke. We lost ourselves in intense watching.

For by degrees the black water, leaving its natural motion, seemed to pile up under the black cloud, and then, very suddenly, before one could see how it happened, either the cloud stretched out a trunk to the sea, or the sea to the cloud, and two funnel-shaped masses were joined together by a long, twisting, whirling column of water that neither sea nor sky seemed able to break away from. It was a weird sight to see this dark shape writhe and spin before the storm, and at last the base of it struck a coral reef, and it disappeared, leaving nothing but a blinding squall of rain and a tumult of white waves breaking on the reef. And then the water whirled and tossed, and flung its white arms about, till the whole sea, which had been ink a few minutes before, had lashed itself into a vast sheet of foam.

We relaxed our grip of each other, and drew breath, and Alister, stretching his arms seawards after a fashion peculiar to him in moments of extreme excitement, gave vent to his feelings in the following words--

"Sirs! yon's a water-spout."

But before we had time to reply, a convict warder, whom we had not noticed, called sharply to us, "Lie down, or you'll be blown down!" and the gale was upon us. We had quite enough to do to hold on to the ground, and keep the stone-dust out of our eyes by shutting them. Further observations were impossible, though it felt as if everything in the world was breaking up, and tumbling about one's ears.

Luckily nothing did strike us, though not more than a hundred yards away a row of fine trees went down like a pack of cards, each one parallel with its neighbour. House-tiles flew in every direction, shutters were whipped off and whirled away; palm-trees snapped like fishing-rods, and when the wind-squall had passed, and we sat up, and tried to get the sand out of our ears, we found the whole place a mass of _debris_.

But when we looked seaward we saw the black arch going as fast as it came. All sense of fever and lassitude had left us. The air was fresh, and calm, and bright, and within half-an-hour the tern and sea-gulls were fishing over the reef and skimming and swooping above the prismatic waters as before.

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