Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Christmas Before Last by Frank R. Stockton

 

The “Horn o' Plenty” was a fine, big, old-fashioned ship, very high in the bow, very high in the stern, with a quarter-deck always carpeted in fine weather, because her captain could not see why one should not make himself comfortable at sea as well as on land. Covajos Maroots was her captain, and a fine, jolly, old-fashioned, elderly sailor he was. The “Horn o' Plenty” always sailed upon one sea, and always between two ports, one on the west side of the sea, and one on the east. The port on the west was quite a large city, in which Captain Covajos had a married son, and the port on the east was another city in which he had a married daughter. In each family he had several grandchildren; and, consequently, it was a great joy to the jolly old sailor to arrive at either port. The Captain was very particular about his cargo, and the “Horn o' Plenty” was generally laden with good things to eat, or sweet things to smell, or fine things to wear, or beautiful things to look at. Once a merchant brought to him some boxes of bitter aloes, and mustard plasters, but Captain Covajos refused to take them into his ship.

“I know,” said he, “that such things are very useful and necessary at times, but you would better send them over in some other vessel. The 'Horn o' Plenty' has never carried any thing that to look at, to taste, or to smell, did not delight the souls of old and young. I am sure you cannot say that of these commodities. If I were to put such things on board my ship, it would break the spell which more than fifty savory voyages have thrown around it.”

There were sailors who sailed upon that sea who used to say that sometimes, when the weather was hazy and they could not see far, they would know they were about to meet the “Horn o' Plenty” before she came in sight; her planks and timbers, and even her sails and masts, had gradually become so filled with the odor of good things that the winds that blew over her were filled with an agreeable fragrance.

There was another thing about which Captain Covajos was very particular; he always liked to arrive at one of his ports a few days before Christmas. Never, in the course of his long life, had the old sailor spent a Christmas at sea; and now that he had his fine grandchildren to help make the holidays merry, it would have grieved him very much if he had been unable to reach one or the other of his ports in good season. His jolly old vessel was generally heavily laden, and very slow, and there were many days of calms on that sea when she did not sail at all, so that her voyages were usually very, very long. But the Captain fixed the days of sailing so as to give himself plenty of time to get to the other end of his course before Christmas came around.

One spring, however, he started too late, and when he was about the middle of his voyage, he called to him Baragat Bean, his old boatswain. This venerable sailor had been with the Captain ever since he had commanded the “Horn o' Plenty,” and on important occasions he was always consulted in preference to the other officers, none of whom had served under Captain Covajos more then fifteen or twenty years.

“Baragat,” said the Captain, “we have just passed the Isle of Guinea-Hens. You can see its one mountain standing up against the sky to the north.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said old Baragat; “there she stands, the same as usual.”

“That makes it plain,” said the Captain, “that we are not yet half-way across, and I am very much afraid that I shall not be able to reach my dear daughter's house before Christmas.”

“That would be doleful, indeed,” said Baragat; “but I've feared something of the kind, for we've had calms nearly every other day, and sometimes, when the wind did blow, it came from the wrong direction, and it's my belief that the ship sailed backward.”

“That was very bad management,” said the Captain. “The chief mate should have seen to it that the sails were turned in such a manner that the ship could not go backward. If that sort of thing happened often, it would become quite a serious affair.”

“But what is done can't be helped,” said the boatswain, “and I don't see how you are going to get into port before Christmas.”

“Nor do I,” said the Captain, gazing out over the sea.

“It would give me a sad turn, sir,” said Baragat, “to see you spend Christmas at sea; a thing you never did before, nor ever shall do, if I can help it. If you'll take my advice, sir, you'll turn around, and go back. It's a shorter distance to the port we started from than to the one we are going to, and if we turn back now, I am sure we all shall be on shore before the holidays.”

“Go back to my son's house!” exclaimed Captain Covajos, “where I was last winter! Why, that would be like spending last Christmas over again!”

“But that would be better than having none at all, sir,” said the boatswain, “and a Christmas at sea would be about equal to none.”

“Good!” exclaimed the Captain. “I will give up the coming Christmas with my daughter and her children, and go back and spend last Christmas over again with my son and his dear boys and girls. Have the ship turned around immediately, Baragat, and tell the chief mate I do not wish to sail backward if it can possibly be avoided.”

For a week or more the “Horn o' Plenty” sailed back upon her track towards the city where dwelt the Captain's son. The weather was fine, the carpet was never taken up from the quarter-deck, and every thing was going on very well, when a man, who happened to have an errand at one of the topmasts, came down, and reported that, far away to the north, he had seen a little open boat with some people in it.

“Ah me!” said Captain Covajos, “it must be some poor fellows who are shipwrecked. It will take us out of our course, but we must not leave them to their fate. Have the ship turned about, so that it will sail northward.”

It was not very long before they came up with the boat; and, much to the Captain's surprise, he saw that it was filled with boys.

“Who are you?” he cried as soon as he was near enough. “And where do you come from?”

“We are the First Class in Long Division,” said the oldest boy, “and we are cast away. Have you any thing to eat that you can spare us? We are almost famished.”

“We have plenty of every thing,” said the Captain. “Come on board instantly, and all your wants shall be supplied.”

“How long have you been without food?” he asked, when the boys were on the deck of the vessel.

“We have had nothing to eat since breakfast,” said one of them; “and it is now late in the afternoon. Some of us are nearly dead from starvation.”

“It is very hard for boys to go so long without eating,” said the good Captain. And leading them below, he soon set them to work upon a bountiful meal.

Not until their hunger was fully satisfied did he ask them how they came to be cast away.

“You see, sir,” said the oldest boy, “that we and the Multiplication Class had a holiday to-day, and each class took a boat and determined to have a race, so as to settle, once for all, which was the highest branch of arithmetic, multiplication or long division. Our class rowed so hard that we entirely lost sight of the Multiplicationers, and found indeed that we were out of sight of every thing; so that, at last, we did not know which was the way back, and thus we became castaways.”

“Where is your school?” asked the Captain.

“It is on Apple Island,” said the boy; “and, although it is a long way off for a small boat with only four oars for nine boys, it can't be very far for a ship.”

“That is quite likely,” said the Captain, “and we shall take you home. Baragat, tell the chief mate to have the vessel turned toward Apple Island, that we may restore these boys to their parents and guardians.”

Now, the chief mate had not the least idea in the world where Apple Island was, but he did not like to ask, because that would be confessing his ignorance; so he steered his vessel toward a point where he believed he had once seen an island, which, probably, was the one in question. The “Horn o' Plenty” sailed in this direction all night, and when day broke, and there was no island in sight, she took another course; and so sailed this way and that for six or seven days, without ever seeing a sign of land. All this time, the First Class in Long Division was as happy as it could be, for it was having a perfect holiday; fishing off the sides of the vessel, climbing up the ladders and ropes, and helping the sailors whistle for wind. But the Captain now began to grow a little impatient, for he felt he was losing time; so he sent for the chief mate, and said to him mildly but firmly:

“I know it is out of the line of your duty to search for island schools, but, if you really think that you do not know where Apple Island lies, I wish you to say so, frankly and openly.”

“Frankly and openly,” answered the mate, “I don't think I do.”

“Very well,” said the Captain. “Now, that is a basis to work upon, and we know where we stand. You can take a little rest, and let the second mate find the island. But I can only give him three days in which to do it. We really have no time to spare.”

The second mate was very proud of the responsibility placed upon him, and immediately ordered the vessel to be steered due south.

“One is just as likely,” he said, “to find a totally unknown place by going straight ahead in a certain direction, as by sailing here, there, and everywhere. In this way, you really get over more water, and there is less wear and tear of the ship and rigging.”

So he sailed due south for two days, and at the end of that time they came in sight of land. This was quite a large island, and when they approached near enough, they saw upon its shores a very handsome city.

“Is this Apple Island?” said Captain Covajos to the oldest boy.

“Well, sir,” answered the youth, “I am not sure I can say with certainty that I truly believe that it is; but, I think, if we were to go on shore, the people there would be able to tell us how to go to Apple Island.”

“Very likely,” said the good Captain; “and we will go on shore and make inquiries.—And it has struck me, Baragat,” he said, “that perhaps the merchants in the city where my son lives may be somewhat annoyed when the 'Horn o' Plenty' comes back with all their goods on board, and not disposed of. Not understanding my motives, they may be disposed to think ill of me. Consequently the idea has come into my head, that it might be a good thing to stop here for a time, and try to dispose of some of our merchandise. The city seems to be quite prosperous, and I have no doubt there are a number of merchants here.”

So the “Horn o' Plenty” was soon anchored in the harbor, and as many of the officers and crew as could be spared went on shore to make inquiries. Of course the First Class in Long Division was not left behind; and, indeed, they were ashore as soon as anybody. The Captain and his companions were cordially welcomed by some of the dignitaries of the city who had come down to the harbor to see the strange vessel; but no one could give any information in regard to Apple Island, the name of which had never been heard on those shores. The Captain was naturally desirous of knowing at what place he had landed, and was informed that this was the Island of the Fragile Palm.

“That is rather an odd name,” said the old Captain. “Why is it so called?”

“The reason is this,” said his informant. “Near the centre of the island stands a tall and very slender palm-tree, which has been growing there for hundreds of years. It bears large and handsome fruit which is something like the cocoanut; and, in its perfection, is said to be a transcendently delicious fruit.”

“Said to be!” exclaimed the Captain; “are you not positive about it?”

“No,” said the other; “no one living has ever tasted the fruit in its perfection. When it becomes overripe, it drops to the ground, and, even then, it is considered royal property, and is taken to the palace for the King's table. But on fete-days and grand occasions small bits of it are distributed to the populace.”

“Why don't you pick the fruit,” asked Captain Covajos, “when it is in its best condition to eat?”

“It would be impossible,” said the citizen, “for any one to climb up that tree, the trunk of which is so extremely delicate and fragile that the weight of a man would probably snap it; and, of course, a ladder placed against it would produce the same result. Many attempts have been made to secure this fruit at the proper season, but all of them have failed. Another palm-tree of a more robust sort was once planted near this one in the hope that when it grew high enough, men could climb up the stronger tree and get the fruit from the other. But, although we waited many years the second tree never attained sufficient height, and it was cut down.”

“It is a great pity,” said the Captain; “but I suppose it cannot be helped.” And then he began to make inquiries about the merchants in the place, and what probability there was of his doing a little trade here. The Captain soon discovered that the cargo of his ship was made up of goods which were greatly desired by the citizens of this place; and for several days he was very busy in selling the good things to eat, the sweet things to smell, the fine things to wear, and the beautiful things to look at, with which the hold of the “Horn o' Plenty” was crowded.

During this time the First Class in Long Division roamed, in delight, over the city. The busy streets, the shops, the handsome buildings, and the queer sights which they occasionally met, interested and amused them greatly. But still the boys were not satisfied. They had heard of the Fragile Palm, and they made up their minds to go and have a look at it. Therefore, taking a guide, they tramped out into the country, and in about an hour they came in sight of the beautiful tree standing in the centre of the plain. The trunk was, indeed, exceedingly slender, and, as the guide informed them, the wood was of so very brittle a nature that if the tree had not been protected from the winds by the high hills which encircled it, it would have been snapped off ages ago. Under the broad tuft of leaves that formed its top, the boys saw hanging large clusters of the precious fruit; great nuts as big as their heads.

“At what time of the year,” asked the oldest boy, “is that fruit just ripe enough to eat?”

“Now,” answered the guide. “This is the season when it is in the most perfect condition. In about a month it will become entirely too ripe and soft, and will drop. But, even then, the King and all the rest of us are glad enough to get a taste of it.”

“I should think the King would be exceedingly eager to get some of it, just as it is,” said the boy.

“Indeed he is!” replied the guide. “He and his father, and I don't know how many grandfathers back, have offered large rewards to any one who would procure them this fruit in its best condition. But nobody has ever been able to get any yet.”

“The reward still holds good, I suppose,” said the head boy.

“Oh, yes,” answered the guide; “there never was a King who so much desired to taste the fruit as our present monarch.”

The oldest boy looked up at the top of the tree, shut one eye, and gave his head a little wag. Whereupon every boy in the class looked up, shut one eye, and slightly wagged his head. After which the oldest boy said that he thought it was about time for them to go back to the ship.

As soon as they reached the vessel, and could talk together freely, the boys had an animated discussion. It was unanimously agreed that they would make an attempt to get some of the precious fruit from the Fragile Palm, and the only difference of opinion among them was as to how it should be done. Most of them were in favor of some method of climbing the tree and trusting to its not breaking. But this the oldest boy would not listen to; the trunk might snap, and then somebody would be hurt, and he felt, in a measure, responsible for the rest of the class. At length a good plan was proposed by a boy who had studied mechanics.

“What we ought to do with that tree,” said he, “is to put a hinge into her. Then we could let her down gently, pick off the fruit, and set her up again.

“But how are you going to do it?” asked the others.

“This is the way,” said the boy who had studied mechanics. “You take a saw, and then, about two feet from the ground, you begin and saw down diagonally, for a foot and a half, to the centre of the trunk. Then you go on the other side, and saw down in the same way, the two outs meeting each other. Now you have the upper part of the trunk ending in a wedge, which fits into a cleft in the lower part of the trunk. Then, about nine inches below the place where you first began to saw, you bore a hole straight through both sides of the cleft and the wedge between them. Then you put an iron bolt through this hole, and you have your tree on a hinge, only she wont be apt to move because she fits in so snug and tight. Then you get a long rope, and put one end in a slipknot loosely around the trunk. Then you get a lot of poles, and tie them end to end, and push this slip-knot up until it is somewhere near the top, when you pull it tight. Then you take another rope with a slip-knot, and push this a little more than half-way up the trunk. By having two ropes, that way, you prevent too much strain coming on any one part of the trunk. Then, after that, you take a mallet and chisel and round off the lower corners of the wedge, so that it will turn easily in the cleft. Then we take hold of the ropes, let her down gently, pick off the fruit, and haul her up again. That will all be easy enough.”

This plan delighted the boys, and they all pronounced in its favor; but the oldest one suggested that it would be better to fasten the ropes to the trunk before they began to saw upon it, and another boy asked how they were going to keep the tree standing when they hauled her up again.

“Oh, that is easy,” said the one who had studied mechanics; “you just bore another hole about six inches above the first one, and put in another bolt. Then, of course, she can't move.”

This settled all the difficulties, and it was agreed to start out early the next morning, gather the fruit, and claim the reward the King had offered. They accordingly went to the Captain and asked him for a sharp saw, a mallet and chisel, an auger, two iron bolts, and two very long ropes. These, having been cheerfully given to them, were put away in readiness for the work to be attempted.

Very early on the next morning, the First Class in Long Division set out for the Fragile Palm, carrying their tools and ropes. Few people were awake as they passed through the city, and, without being observed, they reached the little plain on which the tree stood. The ropes were attached at the proper places, the tree was sawn, diagonally, according to the plan; the bolt was put in, and the corners of the wedge were rounded off. Then the eldest boy produced a pound of butter, whereupon his comrades, who had seized the ropes, paused in surprise and asked him why he had brought the butter.

“I thought it well,” was the reply, “to bring along some butter, because, when the tree is down, we can grease the hinge, and then it will not be so hard to pull it up again.”

When all was ready, eight of the boys took hold of the long ropes, while another one with a pole pushed against the trunk of the Fragile Palm. When it began to lean over a little, he dropped his pole and ran to help the others with the ropes. Slowly the tree moved on its hinge, descending at first very gradually; but it soon began to move with greater rapidity, although the boys held it back with all their strength; and, in spite of their most desperate efforts, the top came to the ground at last with a great thump. And then they all dropped their ropes, and ran for the fruit. Fortunately the great nuts incased in their strong husks were not in the least injured, and the boys soon pulled them off, about forty in all. Some of the boys were in favor of cracking open a few of the nuts and eating them, but this the eldest boy positively forbade.

“This fruit,” he said, “is looked upon as almost sacred, and if we were to eat any of it, it is probable that we should be put to death, which would be extremely awkward for fellows who have gone to all the trouble we have had. We must set up the tree and carry the fruit to the King.”

According to this advice, they thoroughly greased the hinge in the tree with the butter, and then set themselves to work to haul up the trunk. This, however, was much more difficult than letting it down; and they had to lift up the head of it, and prop it up on poles, before they could pull upon it with advantage. The tree, although tall, was indeed a very slender one, with a small top, and, if it had been as fragile as it was supposed to be, the boys' efforts would surely have broken it. At last, after much tugging and warm work, they pulled it into an upright position, and put in the second bolt. They left the ropes on the tree because, as some of them had suggested, the people might want to let the tree down again the next year. It would have been difficult for the boys to carry in their arms the great pile of fruit they had gathered; but, having noticed a basket-maker's cottage on their way to the tree, two of them were sent to buy one of his largest baskets or hampers. This was attached to two long poles, and, having been filled with the nuts, the boys took the poles on their shoulders, and marched into the city.

On their way to the palace they attracted a great crowd, and when they were ushered into the presence of the King, his surprise and delight knew no bounds. At first he could scarcely believe his eyes; but he had seen the fruit so often that there could be no mistake about it.

“I shall not ask you,” he said to the boys, “how you procured this fruit, and thus accomplished a deed which has been the object of the ambition of myself and my forefathers. All I ask is, did you leave the tree standing?”

“We did,” said the boys.

“Then all that remains to be done,” said His Majesty, “is to give you the reward you have so nobly earned. Treasurer, measure out to each of them a quart of gold coin. And pray be quick about it, for I am wild with desire to have a table spread, and one of these nuts cracked, that I may taste of its luscious contents.”

The boys, however, appeared a little dissatisfied. Huddling together, they consulted in a low tone, and then the eldest boy addressed the King.

“May it please your Majesty,” he said; “we should very much prefer to have you give each of us one of those nuts instead of a quart of gold.”

The King looked grave. “This is a much greater reward,” he said, “than I had ever expected to pay; but, since you ask it, you must have it. You have done something which none of my subjects has ever been able to accomplish, and it is right, therefore, that you should be fully satisfied.”

So he gave them each a nut, with which they departed in triumph to the ship.

By the afternoon of the next day, the Captain had sold all his cargo at very good prices; and when the money was safely stored away in the “Horn o' Plenty,” he made ready to sail, for he declared he had really no time to spare. “I must now make all possible haste,” he said to old Baragat, “to find Apple Island, put these boys ashore, and then speed away to the city where lives my son. We must not fail to get there in time to spend last Christmas over again.”

On the second day, after the “Horn o' Plenty” had left the Island of the Fragile Palm, one of the sailors who happened to be aloft noticed a low, black, and exceedingly unpleasant-looking vessel rapidly approaching. This soon proved to be the ship of a band of corsairs, who, having heard of the large amount of money on the “Horn o' Plenty,” had determined to pursue her and capture the rich prize. All sails were set upon the “Horn o' Plenty,” but it soon became plain that she could never outsail the corsair vessel.

“What our ship can do better than any thing else,” said Baragat to the Captain, “is to stop short. Stop her short, and let the other one go by.”

This manoeuvre was executed, but, although the corsair passed rapidly by, not being able to stop so suddenly, it soon turned around and came back, its decks swarming with savage men armed to the teeth.

“They are going to board us,” cried Baragat. “They are getting out their grappling-irons, and they will fasten the two ships together.”

“Let all assemble on the quarter-deck,” said the Captain. “It is higher there, and we shall not be so much exposed to accidents.”

The corsair ship soon ran alongside the “Horn o' Plenty,” and in a moment the two vessels were fastened together; and then the corsairs, every man of them, each with cutlass in hand and a belt full of dirks and knives, swarmed up the side of the “Horn o' Plenty,” and sprang upon its central deck. Some of the ferocious fellows, seeing the officers and crew all huddled together upon the quarter-deck, made a movement in that direction. This so frightened the chief mate that he sprang down upon the deck of the corsair ship. A panic now arose, and he was immediately followed by the officers and crew. The boys, of course, were not to be left behind; and the Captain and Baragat felt themselves bound not to desert the crew, and so they jumped also. None of the corsairs interfered with this proceeding, for each one of them was anxious to find the money at once. When the passengers and crew of the “Horn o' Plenty” were all on board the corsair ship, Baragat came to the Captain, and said:

“If I were you, sir, I'd cast off those grapnels, and separate the vessels. If we don't do that those rascals, when they have finished robbing our money-chests, will come back here and murder us all.”

“That is a good idea,” said Captain Covajos; and he told the chief mate to give orders to cast off the grapnels, push the two vessels apart, and set some of the sails.

When this had been done, the corsair vessel began to move away from the other, and was soon many lengths distant from her. When the corsairs came on deck and perceived what had happened, they were infuriated, and immediately began to pursue their own vessel with the one they had captured. But the “Horn o' Plenty” could not, by any possibility, sail as fast as the corsair ship, and the latter easily kept away from her.

“Now, then,” said Baragat to the Captain, “what you have to do is easy enough. Sail straight for our port and those sea-robbers will follow you; for, of course, they will wish to get their own vessel back again, and will hope, by some carelessness on our part, to overtake us. In the mean time the money will be safe enough, for they will have no opportunity of spending it; and when we come to port, we can take some soldiers on board, and go back and capture those fellows. They can never sail away from us on the 'Horn o' Plenty.'“

“That is an admirable plan,” said the Captain, “and I shall carry it out; but I cannot sail to port immediately. I must first find Apple Island and land these boys, whose parents and guardians are probably growing very uneasy. I suppose the corsairs will continue to follow us wherever we go.”

“I hope so,” said Baragat; “at any rate we shall see.”

The First Class in Long Division was very much delighted with the change of vessels, and the boys rambled everywhere, and examined with great interest all that belonged to the corsairs. They felt quite easy about the only treasures they possessed, because, when they had first seen the piratical vessel approaching, they had taken the precious nuts which had been given to them by the King, and had hidden them at the bottom of some large boxes, in which the Captain kept the sailors' winter clothes.

“In this warm climate,” said the eldest boy, “the robbers will never meddle with those winter clothes, and our precious fruit will be perfectly safe.”

“If you had taken my advice,” said one of the other boys, “we should have eaten some of the nuts. Those, at least, we should have been sure of.”

“And we should have had that many less to show to the other classes,” said the eldest boy. “Nuts like these, I am told, if picked at the proper season, will keep for a long time.”

For some days the corsairs on board the “Horn o' Plenty” followed their own vessel, but then they seemed to despair of ever being able to overtake it, and steered in another direction. This threatened to ruin all the plans of Captain Covajos, and his mind became troubled. Then the boy who had studied mechanics came forward and said to the Captain:

“I'll tell you what I'd do, sir, if I were you; I'd follow your old ship, and when night came on I'd sail up quite near to her, and let some of your sailors swim quietly over, and fasten a cable to her, and then you could tow her after you wherever you wished to go.”

“But they might unfasten the cable, or cut it,” said Baragat, who was standing by.

“That could easily be prevented,” said the boy. “At their end of the cable must be a stout chain which they cannot cut, and it must be fastened so far beneath the surface of the water that they will not be able to reach it to unfasten it.”

“A most excellent plan,” said Captain Covajos; “let it be carried out.”

As soon as it became quite dark, the corsair vessel quietly approached the other, and two stout sailors from Finland, who swam very well, were ordered to swim over and attach the chain-end of a long cable to the “Horn o' Plenty.” It was a very difficult operation, for the chain was heavy, but the men succeeded at last, and returned to report.

“We put the chain on, fast and strong sir,” they said to the Captain; “and six feet under water. But the only place we could find to make it fast to was the bottom of the rudder.”

“That will do very well,” remarked Baragat; “for the 'Horn o' Plenty' sails better backward than forward, and will not be so hard to tow.”

For week after week, and month after month, Captain Covajos, in the corsair vessel, sailed here and there in search of Apple Island, always towing after him the “Horn o' Plenty,” with the corsairs on board, but never an island with a school on it could they find; and one day old Baragat came to the Captain and said:

“If I were you, sir, I'd sail no more in these warm regions. I am quite sure that apples grow in colder latitudes, and are never found so far south as this.”

“That is a good idea,” said Captain Covajos. “We should sail for the north if we wished to find an island of apples. Have the vessel turned northward.”

And so, for days and weeks, the two vessels slowly moved on to the north. One day the Captain made some observations and calculations, and then he hastily summoned Baragat.

“Do you know,” said he, “that I find it is now near the end of November, and I am quite certain that we shall not get to the port where my son lives in time to celebrate last Christmas again. It is dreadfully slow work, towing after us the 'Horn o' Plenty,' full of corsairs, wherever we go. But we cannot cast her off and sail straight for our port, for I should lose my good ship, the merchants would lose all their money, and the corsairs would go unpunished; and, besides all that, think of the misery of the parents and guardians of those poor boys. No; I must endeavor to find Apple Island. And if I cannot reach port in time to spend last Christmas with my son, I shall certainly get there in season for Christmas before last. It is true that I spent that Christmas with my daughter, but I cannot go on to her now. I am much nearer the city where my son lives; and, besides, it is necessary to go back, and give the merchants their money. So now we shall have plenty of time, and need not feel hurried.”

“No,” said Baragat, heaving a vast sigh, “we need not feel hurried.”

The mind of the eldest boy now became very much troubled, and he called his companions about him. “I don't like at all,” said he, “this sailing to the north. It is now November, and, although it is warm enough at this season in the southern part of the sea, it will become colder and colder as we go on. The consequence of this will be that those corsairs will want winter clothes, they will take them out of the Captain's chests, and they will find our fruit.”

The boys groaned. “That is true,” said one of them; “but still we wish to go back to our island.”

“Of course,” said the eldest boy, “it is quite proper that we should return to Long Division. But think of the hard work we did to get that fruit, and think of the quarts of gold we gave up for it! It would be too bad to lose it now!”

It was unanimously agreed that it would be too bad to lose the fruit, and it was also unanimously agreed that they wished to go back to Apple Island. But what to do about it, they did not know.

Day by day the weather grew colder and colder, and the boys became more and more excited and distressed for fear they should lose their precious fruit. The eldest boy lay awake for several nights, and then a plan came into his head. He went to Captain Covajos and proposed that he should send a flag of truce over to the corsairs, offering to exchange winter clothing. He would send over to them the heavy garments they had left on their own vessel, and in return would take the boxes of clothes intended for the winter wear of his sailors. In this way, they would get their fruit back without the corsairs knowing any thing about it. The Captain considered this an excellent plan, and ordered the chief mate to take a boat and a flag of truce, and go over to the “Horn o' Plenty,” and make the proposition. The eldest boy and two of the others insisted on going also, in order that there might be no mistake about the boxes. But when the flag-of-truce party reached the “Horn o' Plenty” they found not a corsair there! Every man of them had gone. They had taken with them all the money-chests, but to the great delight of the boys, the boxes of winter clothes had not been disturbed; and in them still nestled, safe and sound, the precious nuts of the Fragile Palm.

When the matter had been thoroughly looked into, it became quite evident what the corsairs had done. There had been only one boat on board the “Horn o' Plenty,” and that was the one on which the First Class in Long Division had arrived. The night before, the two vessels had passed within a mile or so of a large island, which the Captain had approached in the hope it was the one they were looking for, and they passed it so slowly that the corsairs had time to ferry themselves over, a few at a time, in the little boat, taking with them the money,—and all without discovery.

Captain Covajos was greatly depressed when he heard of the loss of all the money.

“I shall have a sad tale to tell my merchants,” he said, “and Christmas before last will not be celebrated so joyously as it was the first time. But we cannot help what has happened, and we all must endeavor to bear our losses with patience. We shall continue our search for Apple Island, but I shall go on board my own ship, for I have greatly missed my carpeted quarter-deck and my other comforts. The chief mate, however, and a majority of the crew shall remain on board the corsair vessel, and continue to tow us. The 'Horn o' Plenty' sails better stern foremost, and we shall go faster that way.”

The boys were overjoyed at recovering their fruit, and most of them were in favor of cracking two or three of the great nuts, and eating their contents in honor of the occasion, but the eldest boy dissuaded them.

“The good Captain,” he said, “has been very kind in endeavoring to take us back to our school, and still intends to keep up the search for dear old Apple Island. The least we can do for him is to give him this fruit, which is all we have, and let him do what he pleases with it. This is the only way in which we can show our gratitude to him.”

The boys turned their backs on one another, and each of them gave his eyes a little rub, but they all agreed to give the fruit to the Captain.

When the good old man received his present, he was much affected. “I will accept what you offer me,” he said; “for if I did not, I know your feelings would be wounded. But you must keep one of the nuts for yourselves. And, more than that, if we do not find Apple Island in the course of the coming year, I invite you all to spend Christmas before last over again, with me at my son's house.”

All that winter, the two ships sailed up and down, and here and there, but never could they find Apple Island. When Christmas-time came, old Baragat went around among the boys and the crew, and told them it would be well not to say a word on the subject to the Captain, for his feelings were very tender in regard to spending Christmas away from his families, and the thing had never happened before. So nobody made any allusion to the holidays, and they passed over as if they had been ordinary days.

During the spring, and all through the summer, the two ships kept up the unavailing search, but when the autumn began, Captain Covajos said to old Baragat: “I am very sorry, but I feel that I can no longer look for Apple Island. I must go back and spend Christmas before last over again, with my dearest son; and if these poor boys never return to their homes, I am sure they cannot say it was any fault of mine.”

“No, sir,” said Baragat, “I think you have done all that could be expected of you.”

So the ships sailed to the city on the west side of the sea; and the Captain was received with great joy by his son, and his grandchildren. He went to the merchants, and told them how he had lost all their money. He hoped they would be able to bear their misfortune with fortitude, and begged, as he could do nothing else for them, that they would accept the eight great nuts from the Fragile Palm that the boys had given him. To his surprise the merchants became wild with delight when they received the nuts. The money they had lost was as nothing, they said, compared to the value of this incomparable and precious fruit, picked in its prime, and still in a perfect condition.

It had been many, many generations since this rare fruit, the value of which was like unto that of diamonds and pearls, had been for sale in any market in the world; and kings and queens in many countries were ready to give for it almost any price that might be asked.

When the good old Captain heard this he was greatly rejoiced, and, as the holidays were now near, he insisted that the boys should spend Christmas before last over again, at his son's house. He found that a good many people here knew where Apple Island was, and he made arrangements for the First Class in Long Division to return to that island in a vessel which was to sail about the first of the year.

The boys still possessed the great nut which the Captain had insisted they should keep for themselves, and he now told them that if they chose to sell it, they would each have a nice little fortune to take back with them. The eldest boy consulted the others, and then he said to the Captain:

“Our class has gone through a good many hardships, and has had a lot of trouble with that palm-tree and other things, and we think we ought to be rewarded. So, if it is all the same to you, I think we will crack the nut on Christmas Day and we all will eat it.”

“I never imagined,” cried Captain Covajos, as he sat, on that Christmas Day, surrounded by his son's family and the First Class in Long Division, the eyes of the whole party sparkling with ecstasy as they tasted the peerless fruit of the Fragile Palm, “that Christmas before last could be so joyfully celebrated over again.”

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page