A Sister's Bye-Hours (6)

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I HAVE a brother who is a midshipman.

    That announcement is easily made, and to sisters who are not in similar case it is of no particular signification, but to those who are, it suggests a great deal.  For midshipmen, like other boys, come home sometimes to cheer the hearts of their relatives; and how they spend their time when enjoying these visits, is well known to the initiated, but the world in general can form but a meagre notion of it.

    A midshipman, when he comes home, soon makes his family feel that no part of the house, inside or outside, is inaccessible to him; windows are handier things than doors to come in at, if one may judge by his habits; there is no tree in the topmost branch of which he will not sit cross-legged, cracking filberts; there is no rook's nest, however high, that he has not poked his fingers into; poplars are a joke to him, and he makes no more of oaks and chestnuts than he does of haystacks.

    Other boys are contented to sit on chairs and eat their lunch in the dining-room, but a midshipman loves to eat up aloft, and carries his provisions, sometimes plate, glass, and all, to the top of the greenhouse, where, strange to say, he never breaks the glass; or to the top of the pigeon-house, which is a very handy place, because of the weather-cock upon which he can hang his cap and jacket.

    He comes in, smelling of smoke, and presents you with some sooty young jackdaws, which he has just got out of the top of the chimney.

    He spends a sovereign in rope such as boxes are corded with; it comes home from the shop in a cart; some of it he makes into rope ladders, and runs up and down them like a squirrel; other lengths are twisted into cat's cradles up in the trees, or festooned from one to the other, and upon these he disports himself and travels audaciously from tree to tree without touching the deck.  O that her Majesty could conveniently be served without so much agility and such marvellous powers of swarming!

    Finally, he goes away again upon his country's service, and his relatives have the comfort of knowing that, whatever he may have done at home, the feats he is performing, perhaps at that very moment, in the rigging of H. M. S. the ――, make his other feats nothing, and not worth mentioning.

    The best receipt that I know of for keeping a midshipman on terra firma is to tell him a story.  Under favourable circumstances I have known this to succeed for two or three hours together, if it is done in the open air, and among newly-cut hay; the lines of hay, I suppose, remind them of waves! for certain it is that I have never known a midshipman run off over these lines, and I have tried the experiment several times, and on more than one of these generally refractory subjects.

    Sometimes my brother could be drawn into relating a story himself; some adventure that he had met with, or some wonderful thing that he had seen; for this said midshipman, though scarcely yet fourteen years of age, has visited every quarter of the globe, and known both shipwreck and tornado.

    Once he told me such a curious story, showing the value of presence of mind, that I wrote it down shortly afterwards, and I now offer it to you, divested of nearly all the language of the sea: its interest partly depends, in my mind, upon the fact, that but for this singular presence of mind he probably would not have lived to tell it.

    "I suppose you have heard of Cumana?" he began; ignorance on such subjects as terrestrial magnetism, navigation, and the internal arrangements of a ship, seeming to his mind inconsistent with knowledge on any other points.

    "How can you ask such a question?" I answered.  "Yes, of course I have, and I have read an account of it in; Humboldt is a town in the northern part of South America."

    "O, well, I thought you might not know about it; at least, I thought you might not know about the experiments that have been made there; about the variations, and all that."  He then added something about a volcanic country, and the "inclination," and the "dip;" and I thought I would not commit myself; so I merely said that I had read Sir John Ross's book, and how he went in search of the magnetic poles.

    "O, well," he answered, "then I needn't explain it to you.  I did tell you that we lay off Cumana for some time, and that we were sent up the country to that convent on the mountain; Talbot, and Owen, and I were sent, with the second and third lieutenants and the doctor, to the heights above Cumana, with the chronometers and the instruments."

    "Was it a long journey?" I inquired.

    "No, not long, only difficult; it took several days.  You cannot think what an extraordinary shore there is to that part of South America.  When the tide goes out, it uncovers acres of trees; their stems and lower branches are thickly incrusted with slimy mud, and yet they live and grow in the salt water.  They are mangroves, and have great, flapping, fleshy leaves, almost as thick as a person's hand.  You never saw such unwholesome-looking trees; they steam with the heat till the mud is dry and caked upon them, and then the tide comes up and wets it again.

    "We travelled up the country on mules; it was intensely hot, and so steep, when once we began to ascend the mountain, that I should no more have thought the mules could climb up with us, than I should have expected them to get up to the masthead; and yet they did contrive it, and took up the instruments too.  Where there were no trees for shelter, the country was nothing but dead grass, dust, and rents cracked in the ground; some of these rents were three feet across, and had lizards hiding in them, and crayfish; but under the shade of the forest, everything dripped with moisture, and we were so wet when we came out that our clothes and the mules steamed visibly; but the sun soon dried it up.

    "We spent three days at the convent on the mountain, and the monks were very kind to us, and tried to teach us some of their Spanish words.  I used to think that monks were dark, dignified fellows, solemn, and rather silent; but these monks were very greasy ones! and they had such dirty hands and gowns that I've no doubt soap must be very hard to get up there, and water too.

    "There could not be a stranger place than that convent.  It was built on a flat piece of land at the top of the mountain, and about as large as this field (four acres); on three sides there was a precipice, and if you walked to the edge you could see the trees growing below, and the apes springing about upon them.  On the fourth side you could drop stones into a tarn or lake, a thousand feet below you; and yet almost overhanging this lake is the path downward.

    "You would hardly call it a path at all.  Imagine the steepest descent down which it would be possible to slide without danger of tumbling head foremost, and then imagine that upon it was built a wall thirty or forty feet high, and that the path was the top of the wall, and you will have a very good notion of what it was like."

    "But do you mean that there really was a wall?" I inquired.

    "O, no; but I mean that up great part of that side of the mountain runs a sort of spine of rock, scarcely wide enough in some places for two mules to walk upon abreast; it is flat at the top, and bare of trees.  The mountain itself is covered with such dense forest that you can imagine nothing like it here; in some parts the 'spine' is higher than the forest, and you look down on the tops of the trees; in others they reach above it and overshadow it.

    "Well, we three youngsters were left with the old monks for a day after the rest of the party were gone down again; and then we set off, Talbot, and Owen, and I, with two Indians, and two of the fattest of the old monks, who seemed so infirm that it was surprising to see how well they rode.  It was the most piping-hot morning, and the stillest, that you can imagine, when we rode out at the court-yard of the convent.  We thought we never were to begin the descent; those monks were so afraid we should be playing some tricks, or getting ourselves hurt for want of care, that they all collected round us, shaking their heads at us, and, with the greatest gravity, trying to let us understand that we ought to be grave and serious, as if we had not come up the very same path.  However, I must say, it's ten times easier getting up than going down; and it was very kind of the old fellows to be sorry to part with us, for we led them such a life while we were there; in fact, our clambering about really frightened them out of their wits.

    "So off we set, and at first we made scarcely any way; the mules are cunning creatures, and would not go a step faster for coaxing or whipping; they stepped along the spine as daintily as a lady who is afraid of wetting her feet, first a little to one side, then to the other, so that I could have thrown my cap down right into the water if I had liked; and I would have done it, only one of the monks, when we frightened him, to heave up such deep groans that we all knew how thankful he would be when we were safe out of his hands.

    "There are two forests there, one above the other.  First, there are the trees with branches like our oaks and elms, only covered with flowers large, white, yellow, and scarlet blossoms; great creepers twine over them; they are like cables, only green and hairy, and here and there bursting out with queer flowers, some like wax globes, some like tufts of feathers, others all thick and powdery, with red pollen strewing the ground beneath, and others dripping honey.  This was the under forest; out of it sprang tall trunks, bare, like masts, and spread out their tops just like umbrellas held out to shade the under trees from the sun.

    "We were nearly an hour going down the first thousand feet to the lake; after that, the way was not so steep, and the spine of rock was lower, for the trees of the upper forest overshadowed us.  Nothing seemed to live in them; but the under forest perfectly swarmed with monkeys, squirrels, lizards, yellow snakes, birds, and butterflies.  You can't think what a noise and fuss was going on there; it was perfectly stunning.  First we would come to a whole flock of blue parrots with rose-colored top-knots; they were tearing to pieces a quantity of white fleshy flowers with their strong beaks, and feeding on a yellow seed that was in them.  Sometimes the way was perfectly white with these flowers, and not one was left on the tree, while the birds sat on the boughs absolutely panting with the toil of tearing them up.  Next we would come to a whole tribe of little monkeys, screaming, and squalling, and boxing one another's ears, and altogether making such a distraction, that the cockpit when we are all making as much noise as we possibly can, is nothing to it."

    This I thought was saying a good deal for the powers of the monkeys; and so I intimated to my brother.

    "Ah, wait till you hear those monkeys!" was his reply; "in the hardest gale that ever blew, when the canvas was tearing, and the spars splitting, I'll engage to say they would have been heard as clearly as in a calm.

    "But the noise subsided as it became hotter, and at noonday there was not a sound in the forest; and it was droll to see the cockatoos hanging to the branches by their beaks, just like game in a shop, and with the white film half drawn over their eyes, showing as plainly as possible that they were so hot that they did not know what to do with themselves.

    "At noon we came into a sort of bower in a level place; it was perfectly overhung, and the trees were so matted and laced up with the creepers, that not an inch of sky could be seen, nor a waft of air felt; drops of water fell from the leaves, and a warm steam rose from everything.  But there was a perfect shade, and as there was abundant room for us all to sit down and rest, and unsaddle the mules, we did all we could to persuade the monks to rest there.  Besides, we were hungry, and we kept putting our fingers to our mouths, and telling as well as we could that we wanted something to eat; but they shook their heads, and made us understand that this place was infested with snakes.

    "We looked out from under the trees, and there again, in the glare of the sunbeam, was the spine of rock, now winding downwards almost across the mountain; the heat striking up from it made our eyes burn and our heads ache; but it was not very steep now, and it was nearly as broad as the turnpike roads here, so that I could have got down by the help of my band and the plants.  So off we set again; and now, as there was no danger, we went as we liked, and I led the way.

    "I noticed a great lump of something lying in the path; it was as big as a calf, of a gray colour, and spotted with white; if I thought about it at all, I supposed it was a stone.  I never absolutely looked at it till we were within one pace of it; then my eyes seemed drawn to it, and fixed upon it.  It was a serpent.  The mule sprung back and snorted; her eyes looked as if they would start from her head.

    "There she lay, the odious thing, sleek and fat, all coiled up and knotted, and her little eyes leering at me with a horrid sort of deceitful smile in them.  It could not have been more than a moment that I sat gaping at her, but it seemed a year; and then the mule cried out almost like a human creature, and turned round and tore up again past the other mules, straining and stumbling, and still uttering that fearful cry, till in two or three minutes we were up again in that level place; and I turned and saw all the other mules but one tearing up the ascent, and poor little Owen straining up on foot.

    "There was dust in the road; first I saw only that; then, in the twinkling of an eye, I saw Owen's mule creeping up slowly, and my first thought was wonder where the serpent could be; and my next, wonder at the tremendously long tail that this mule was trailing after her.  In another instant this tail was reared up and brandished over her back, and she was sprawling on the road; and the tail was that great serpent.  Directly the serpent and the mule were rolled up together into one mass, and rocking from side to side, and writhing and struggling.  At last the wretched mule kicking still they both fell together over the edge of the precipice, and went plump into the top of a tree; and while we sat quaking and looking on, they crashed down from thence, and rolled among the ferns and canes, and were lost.

    "It was a horrid sight; and when I got over my surprise a little, I found we had all dismounted, and that Owen was standing wringing his hands and crying with all his might; and then, after that, he stopped and burst out laughing till he made himself cry again.

    "Of course we did not like those old monks to see an English boy crying, and we kept patting him on the back, and talking to him.  At last he seemed to wake up all on a sudden, and begin to look about him.

    "'Well, old fellow,' Talbot said to him, 'how are you now?'

    "'O,' he said, 'I'm all right.  What are we waiting for?'

    "But presently he remembered all about it.  He was last, it seems; and as each mule came up to the serpent, it shied and dashed up the ascent; but his mule actually put her foot into the middle of the creature, slid it down among the sleek folds, and at once seemed paralyzed, and never stirred, but kept gazing at the thing as it uncurled itself and began to hiss softly.

    "Owen said he did not remember how he got off, nor anything else, till he found us all shaking him, and telling him that he was quite safe; and he kept shivering and crying out, while he described the serpent's eyes, 'O, the hissing monster!  I hate her I do hate her!'  And, do you know, it has seemed to me rather shocking ever since, that instead of feeling thankful that we were all safe, I could think of nothing but that text in the Bible about Haman!"

    "What text, my dear boy," I asked him.

    "Why, that account of how Haman came home and told his wife about his riches and his honours, and the distinctions that the king had conferred upon him, and then ended by saying, 'But all this avails me nothing so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting in the king's gate.'"

    "I cannot see any connection between the text and the serpent," I observed; "how came you to think of such a subject?"

    "It flashed into my mind directly, and I thought to myself, what is the good of having this world to live in, if such odious reptiles as this are to share it with us?  How I did loathe that serpent! it quite curdles my blood even now when I think of her!"

    "I have often heard people speak of that peculiar hatred," I replied, "and refer it to the enmity that God placed between the serpent and the seed of the woman."

    "Yes; so the chaplain told us afterwards.  I have often heard lions and tigers roar, when I have been keeping the middle watch, and have felt a good deal of fear and a sort of respect for them, but no disgust.  It was grand in the dark to listen; it made one think, O, you jolly old fellow, I'm glad you're not crunching my bones!  But when you have once heard a serpent hiss, and seen his sleek body and the hideous leer in his eyes, it does not seem enough to have escaped; only to have looked at him sometimes makes you feel ill for days afterwards with disgust and fear.

    "But I was going to tell you what a brave thing Talbot did; as long as I live I shall always think it was the bravest thing that could be, and I shall respect him as much as any grown-up man, though he is only two years older than I am.

    "I told you that we had all dismounted in that shady place; the mules were standing huddled together, but we were in no fear of the serpent, for we knew she would not quit her prey; so we all sat down, and the kind old monks broke off some branches, and we all began to fan ourselves with them, while they got out some provisions.  There was a sort of patty, made of the flesh of iguanas, very nice those creatures are, I can tell you, and then there was some cake of Indian corn, and some baked parrots; but just as we put the very first mouthful into our mouths, Talbot started up as if he was perfectly astonished, and said to us, 'Why, youngsters, we shall never be on board ship by sundown if we stop to rest here, and you know what our orders were;' and in an instant he threw down his cassava and bread, and began to saddle one of the mules again with all his might.  We were extremely surprised; we did not know that the order had been at all urgent.  The monks too were surprised; they rose with many bows, and as plainly as possible let him understand that it was their wish and intention to rest.  But the more they said, the faster Talbot saddled.  Their bows and politeness changed to anger, and still the saddles went on; they thought he could not understand, but they understood that he was perfectly bent upon setting off again forthwith; and boy as he was, they did not seem to know what to do to prevent it.  We were rather sullen at being so disturbed; but Talbot's manner and determination so amazed us, that when he ordered Owen to get up and mount, the poor little fellow obeyed instantly.  Talbot struck the mule with a whip, and off she set down the spine.  'Now then,' he said to me, 'up with you, T――; your mule's ready.'  He was trembling with hurry and impatience.  'No,' I said, ' it suits me to wait a little longer.'  I shall never forget his face then, it seemed to express so many things terror, entreaty, and determination.  'I've no time to wait,' he said, 'but if you don't mount this instant, T――, I must strike you.'  He was far stronger than I, but as he lifted up the whip I knocked up the handle, and it fell.  Instantly he turned to the Indians; they obeyed him, and set off without a word; then the astonished monks, casting melancholy eyes on the provisions, were somehow made to mount.  I don't know how he did it; but I suppose they were so amazed at his behaviour and his audacity, that they had no sense left to contend; and Talbot gave each mule such a blow at parting, that she set off at full speed.

    And then he turned to me.  'Now then,' he said, there is but this one mule left for both of us; mount, and be quick.'  I felt that he had no right to command, and I was angry and astonished.  I fixed my eyes on him for a moment: his whole face seemed to be changed by his impatience, and worked and quivered with it.  I heard the pattering hoofs of the other mules; they were still audible.  If I could have known!  'No,' I said to him, 'I WILL NOT go till I have an explanation.'

    "'Very well, then,' he answered, 'there it is.'  He had already got his hand on my shoulder to urge my mounting; he now turned his eyes towards the most shady and secluded end of the bower, and there O it makes me cold to think of it! there, on a rock, folded and reposing, lay another serpent, just like the one we had seen before.  It was watching us, and bathing its long, slender tongue in a narrow sunbeam.  Instead of springing up and setting off for my life, I could not stir, nor breathe, nor get my eyes away from the fearful creature; but Talbot dragged me up by main force, and mounted behind me; and off we set slowly O, how slowly!

    "We had no whip to urge on the mule with, for I had dropped it when I snatched it from Talbot, and I shall never forget the terrors of the next five minutes.  At last the mule caught sight of her companions and mended her pace, and in a few minutes we came to open sward, where only a few trees were scattered here and there.

    "When we had found a really safe place, where the rock sheltered us, and where there were no crevices in which any creature could hide itself, we all lay down, and Talbot made an apology to the monks ; and I contrived to explain to them what he had done.  They were exceedingly delighted with his presence of mind, and kept repeating, Muschachito mio, Muschachito mio. ['My brave boy, or brave fellow'.]

    "Talbot told us that he saw the serpent the moment the provisions were served out, and was so frightened at first, that for an instant he thought of springing on to a mule, dashing down the slope again, and then turning round when he was safe, to warn us of our danger.  As he really did something so different, I think it was very honourable of him to confess this first intention."

    "Yes, indeed," I replied; "and I think he showed wonderful presence of mind and a noble courage."

    "I was sure you would say so.  He said that he then considered the confusion and fright we should all be in rushing this way and that way, some running down on foot, others hindering one another, perhaps frightening the mules, and letting them run away, and you must remember that our lives almost depended on these mules; we could not get either up or down the mountain without them; and then you must remember too that Owen, after the fright he had had, was not fit for much.  If it had been any other wild animal, of course he would have told us at once; but as it was a serpent, he feared we should be paralyzed; and if not that, get dispersed and fall over the precipice; besides, he hoped at first that it was asleep, and dreaded lest any noise should waken it.  As for me, my behaviour when he was obliged to show it to me makes me think I should not have escaped.  I shall always think that Talbot saved my life, for the serpent was beginning to uncoil himself."

    "There can be very little doubt that he did," said I, "and most probably he was asleep when Talbot first saw him, and might have been awaked by the noise you made in quarrelling together."

    "When you think of the fear and hatred with which you regarded the serpent," I continued, "you should consider that this enmity was implanted because our first parents were tempted to sin by Satan, under the form of a serpent; and that it is sin which we ought to fear and dread, far more than the serpent, which can inflict no injury, excepting to the body.  You should be grateful, too, that the promise given so long ago has been fulfilled by our Redeemer the promise that 'the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head.'"

    "Yes," said my brother, "that was what the ship's chaplain said to us when we came on board."

    And so ended my brother's story.



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