The Pilot's Troubles by August Strindberg
The pilot cutter lay outside, beyond the last beacon fire on the
headland; the winter sun had set long ago and the sea ran high; it was
the real sea with real huge breakers. Suddenly the first mate
signalled: “Sailing ship to windward.”
Far out at sea, a long way off the harbour, a brig was visible; she
had backed her sails and hoisted the pilot's flag; she was asking to be
taken into port.
“Look out!” shouted the master-pilot, who was standing at the helm.
“We'll have a job in this sea, but we must try and get hold of her in
tacking, and you, Victor, throw yourself into her rigging as soon as
you get the chance ... bring the boat round! Now! Clear!”
The cutter turned and steered a course to the brig which lay
“Queer that she should have furled all her canvas. ... Can any one
see a light aboard? No! And no light on the masthead, either! Look out,
Victor!” Now the cutter was alongside; Victor stood waiting on the
gunwale, and the next time she rose on the crest of a big wave, he
leapt into the rigging of the brig, while the cutter sheered off,
tacked, and made for the harbour.
Victor sat in the rigging, half-way between deck and cross-trees,
trying to recover his breath before descending on deck. As soon as he
came down he went to the helm, which was quite the right thing for him
to do. Imagine how shocked he was when he found it deserted! He shouted
“Ho there!” but received no reply.
“They're all inside, drinking,” he thought, peering through the
cabin windows. No, not a soul! He crossed over to the kitchen, examined
the quarterdeck,—not a living being anywhere. Then he realised that he
was on a deserted ship; he concluded that she had sprung a leak and was
He tried to discover the whereabouts of the cutter, but she had
disappeared in the darkness.
It was quite impossible for him to make port. To set the sails, haul
in the brails and bowlines, and at the same time stand at the helm, was
more than any sailor could manage.
There was nothing to b0e done, then, but let the vessel drift,
although he was aware of the fact that she was drifting out to sea.
It would not be true to say that he was pleased, but a pilot is
prepared for anything, and the thought that he might possibly meet a
sailing ship by and by, reassured him. But it was necessary to show a
light and signal.
He made his way towards the kitchen, intending to look for matches
and a lantern. Although the sea was very rough, he noticed that the
ship did not move, a fact which astonished him very much. But when he
came to the mainmast, he was even more astonished to find himself
walking on a parqueted floor, partly covered by a strip of carpet of a
small blue and white checked pattern. He walked and walked, but still
the carpet stretched before him, and still he came no nearer to the
kitchen. It was certainly uncanny, but it was also amusing, for it was
a new experience.
He was a long way off the end of the carpet yet, when he found
himself at the entrance to a passage with brilliantly illuminated shops
on either side. On his right stood a weighing machine and an automatic
figure. Without a moment's hesitation he jumped on the little platform
of the weighing machine and slipped a penny in the slot. As he was
quite sure that he weighed eleven stone, he could not help smiling when
the indicator registered only one. Either the machine has gone wrong,
he thought, or I have been transported to some other planet, ten times
larger, or ten times smaller than the earth; he had been a pupil at the
School of Navigation, you see, and knew something of astronomy.
He jumped off and turned to the automatic figure, eager to find out
what it contained; his penny had hardly dropped when a little flap
opened and a large, white envelope, sealed with a big, red seal, fell
out. He couldn't make out the letters on the seal, but that was neither
here nor there, as he did not know who his correspondent was.
He tore open the envelope and read ... first of all the signature,
just as everybody else does. The letter began ... but I'll tell you
that later on; it's sufficient for you to know now that he read it
three times and then put it into his breast-pocket with a very
thoughtful mien; a very thoughtful mien.
Then he penetrated into the heart of the passage, all the time
keeping carefully in the centre of the carpet. There were all sorts of
shops, but not a single human being, either before or behind the
counters. When he had walked a little way, he stopped before a big shop
window, behind which a great number of shells and snails were
exhibited. As the door stood open, he went in. The walls of the shop
were lined with shelves from floor to ceiling and filled with snails
collected from all the oceans of the world. Nobody was in the shop, but
a ring of tobacco smoke hung in the air, which looked as if somebody
had only just blown it. Victor, who was a bright lad, put his finger
through it. “Hurrah!” he laughed, “now I'm engaged to Miss Tobacco!”
A queer sound, like the ticking of a clock, fell on his ear, but
there was no clock anywhere, and presently he discovered that the sound
came from a bunch of keys. One of the keys had apparently just been put
into the cash-box, and the other keys swung to and fro with the regular
movement of a pendulum. This went on for quite a little while. Then
there was silence once more, and when it was as still as still could
be, a low whistling sound, like the wind blowing through the rigging of
a ship, or steam escaping through a narrow tube, could be heard. The
sound was made by the snails; but as they were of different sizes, each
one of them whistled in a different key; it sounded like a whole
orchestra of whistlers. Victor, who was born on a Thursday, and
therefore understood the birds' language, pricked up his ears and tried
to catch what they were whistling. It was not long before he understood
what they were saying.
“I have the prettiest name,” said one of them, “for I am called
“I'm much the best looking,” said the purple-snail, whose name was
Murex and something else quaint.
“But I've the best voice,” said the tiger-shell; it is called
tiger-shell because it looks like a panther.
“Oh! tut, tut!” said the common garden-snail, “I'm more in demand
than any other snail in the world; you'll find me all over the
flower-beds in the summer, and in the winter I lie in the wood-shed in
a cabbage tub. They call me uninteresting, but they can't do without
“What dreadful creatures they are,” thought Victor, “they think of
nothing but blowing their own trumpets”; and to while away the time he
took up a book which lay on the counter. As he had learned to use his
eyes, he saw at a glance that it opened at page 240 and that chapter 51
began at the top of the left-hand side, and had for a motto a verse
written by Coleridge, the gist of which struck him like a flash of
lightning. With burning cheeks and bated breath he read ... I'll tell
you what he read later on, but I may admit at once that it had nothing
whatever to do with snails.
Victor liked the shop and sat down at a little distance from the
cash-box, the immediate vicinity of which is never without a certain
risk. He began to ponder over all the queer animals which went down to
the sea as he did; he was sure that they could not find it too warm at
the bottom of the sea and yet they perspired; and whenever they
perspired chalk, it immediately became a new house. They wriggled like
worms, some to the right and some to the left; it was clear that they
had to wriggle in some direction and, of course, they could not all
turn to the same side.
All at once a voice came from the other side of the green curtain
which separated the shop from the back parlour.
“Yes, we know all that,” shouted the voice, “but what we don't know
is this: the cockle of the ear belongs to the species of the Helix, and
the little bones near the drum are exactly like the animal in Limnaeus
stagnalis, and that's printed in a book.”
Victor, who realised at once that the voice belonged to a
thought-reader, shouted back brutally, but without showing the least
“We know all that, but why we should have a Helix in our ears is as
unknown to the book as to the dealer in snails—”
“I'm not a dealer in snails,” bellowed the voice behind the curtain.
“What are you, then?” Victor bellowed back.
“I'm ... a troll!”
At the same moment the curtains were drawn aside a little, and a
head appeared in the opening of so terrifying an aspect, that anybody
but Victor would have taken to his heels. But he, who knew exactly how
to treat a troll, looked steadily at the glowing pipe-bowl; for that is
exactly what the troll looked like as he stood blowing rings through
the parted curtains. When the smoke rings had floated within his reach,
he caught them with his fingers and threw them back.
“I see you can play quoits,” snarled the troll.
“A little bit,” answered Victor.
“And you aren't afraid?”
“A sailor must never be afraid of anything; if he is, the girls
won't like him.”
And as he was tired of the snails, Victor seized the opportunity to
beat a retreat without appearing to run away. He left the shop, walking
backwards, for he knew that a man must never show his back to the
enemy, because his back is far more sensitive than ever his face could
And on he went on the blue and white carpet. The passage was not a
straight one, but wound and curved so that it was impossible to see the
end of it; and still there were new shops, and still no people and no
shop proprietors. But Victor, taught by his experience, understood that
they were all in the back parlours.
At last he came to a scent shop, which smelt of all the flowers of
wood and meadow; he thought of his sweetheart and decided to go in and
buy her a bottle of Eau-de-Cologne.
No sooner thought than done. The shop was very much like the snail
shop, but the scent of the flowers was so overpowering that it made his
head ache, and he had to sit down on a chair. A strong smell of almonds
caused a buzzing in his cars, but left a pleasant taste in his mouth,
like cherry-wine. Victor, never at a loss, felt in his pocket for his
little brass box, that had a tiny mirror on the inside of the lid, and
put a piece of chewing tobacco in his mouth; this cleared his brain and
cured his headache. Then he rapped on the counter and shouted:—
“Hallo! Any one there?”
There was no answer. “I'd better go into the back parlour,” he
thought, “and do my shopping there.” He took a little run, put his
right hand on the counter and cleared it at a bound. Then he pushed the
curtains aside and peeped into the room. A sight met his eyes which
completely dazzled him. An orange tree, laden with blossoms and fruit,
stood on a long table covered with a Persian rug, and its shining
leaves looked like the leaves of a camellia. There were rows of
cut-crystal glasses filled with all the most beautiful scented flowers
of the whole world, such as jasmine, tuberoses, violets, lilies of the
valley, roses, and lavender. On one end of the table, half hidden by
the orange tree, he saw two delicate white hands and a pair of slender
wrists under turned-up sleeves, busy with a small distilling apparatus,
made of silver. He did not see the lady's face, and she, too, did not
appear to see him. But when he noticed that her dress was green and
yellow, he knew at once that she was a sorceress, for the caterpillar
of the hawk-moth is green and yellow, and it, too, knows how to bewitch
the eye. The lower end of its body looks as if it were its head and has
a horn like a unicorn, so that it frightens away its enemies with its
mock face, while it feeds in peace with that part of its body which
looks like its hind quarter.
“I know that I'll have a bit of a tussle with her,” thought Victor,
“but I'd better let her begin!” He was quite right, because if one
wants to make people talk, one has but to remain silent oneself.
“Are you the gentleman who is looking for a summer resort?” asked
the lady, coming towards him.
“That's me!” said Victor, merely in order to say something, for he
had never thought of looking for a summer resort in the winter time.
The lady seemed embarrassed, but she was as beautiful as sin, and
cast a bewitching glance at the pilot.
“It's no use trying to bewitch me, for I am engaged to a very nice
girl,” he said, staring between her second and third finger in the
manner of a witch, when she wants to charm the judge.
The lady was young and beautiful from the waist upwards, but below
the waist she seemed very old; it was just as if she had been patched
together of two pieces which didn't match.
“Well, show me the summer resort,” said the pilot.
“If you please, sir,” replied the lady, opening a door in the
They went out and at once found themselves in a wood, consisting
entirely of oak trees.
“We'll only just have to cross the wood, and we'll be there,” said
the lady, beckoning to the pilot to go on, for she did not want to show
him her back.
“I shouldn't wonder if there were a bull somewhere about,” said the
pilot, who had all his wits about him.
“Surely you aren't afraid of a bull?” replied the lady.
“We'll see,” answered the pilot.
They walked across stony hillocks, tree-roots, moors and fells,
clearings and deep recesses, but Victor could not help turning round
every now and then to see whether she was following him, for he could
not hear her footsteps. And even when he had turned round and had her
right before his eyes he had to look very hard, for her green and
yellow dress made her almost invisible.
At last they came to an open space, and when Victor had reached the
centre of the clearing, there was the bull; it was just as if it had
stood there all the time waiting for him. It was jet black, with a
white star in the middle of its forehead, and the corners of its eyes
Escape was impossible; there was nothing for it but to fight. Victor
glanced at the ground and behold! there lay a stout cudgel, newly cut.
He seized it and took up his position.
“You or I!” he shouted. “Come on! One—two—three!” The fight began.
The bull backed like a steam-boat, smoke came through its nostrils, it
moved its tail like a propeller, and then came on at full speed.
The cudgel flashed through the air and with a sound like a shot hit
the bull right between the eyes. Victor sprang aside, and the bull
dashed past him. Then everything seemed to change, and Victor,
terrified, saw the monster make for the border of the wood, from whence
his sweetheart, in a light summer dress, emerged to meet him.
“Climb up the tree, Anna,” he shouted. “The bull's coming!” It was a
cry of anguish from the very bottom of his soul.
And he ran after the monster and hit it on the slenderest part of
its hind-legs in the hope of breaking its shin-bone. With superhuman
strength he felled the giant. Anna was saved, and the pilot held her in
“Where shall we go?” he asked. “Home, of course?”
It did not occur to him to ask her whence she had come, for reasons
which we shall learn hereafter.
They walked along the footpath, hand in hand, happy at their
unexpected meeting. When they had gone a little way, Victor suddenly
“Just wait a moment,” he said. “I must go and have a look at the
bull; I'm sorry for it, poor brute!”
The expression of Anna's face changed, and the corners of her eyes
grew bloodshot. “All right! I'll wait,” she said, with a savage and
malicious glance at the pilot.
Victor gazed at her sadly, for he knew that she had told him an
untruth. But he followed her. There was something extraordinary about
her walk, and all at once the whole of his left side grew as cold as
When they had proceeded a little further, Victor stopped again.
“Give me your hand,” he said. “No, the left one.” He saw that she
was not wearing her engagement ring.
“Where's your ring?” he asked.
“I've lost it,” she replied.
“You are my Anna, and yet you are not,” he exclaimed. “A stranger
has taken possession of you.”
As he said these words, she looked at him with a side-long glance,
and all at once he realised that her eyes were not human, but the
blood-shot eyes of a bull; and then he understood.
“Begone, witch!” he cried, and breathed into her face.
If you could only have seen what happened now! The would-be Anna was
immediately transformed, her face grew green and yellow like gall, and
she burst with rage; at the next moment a black rabbit jumped over the
bilberry bushes and disappeared in the wood.
Victor stood alone in the perplexing, bewildering forest, but he was
not afraid. “I will go on,” he thought, “and if I should meet the devil
himself, I will not be afraid; I shall say the Lord's Prayer, and that
will go a long way towards protecting me.”
He trudged on and presently he came to a cottage. He knocked; the
door was opened by an old woman; he inquired whether he could stay the
night. He could stay, if he liked, but the old dame had nothing to
offer him but a small attic, which was only so so.
Victor did not mind what it was like, as long as it was a place
where he could sleep.
When they were agreed about the price, he followed her upstairs to
the attic. A huge wasp's nest hung right over the bed, and the old dame
began to make excuses for harbouring such guests.
“It doesn't matter in the least,” interrupted the pilot, “wasps are
like human beings, quite inoffensive until you irritate them. Perhaps
you keep snakes, too?”
“Well, there are some, of course.”
“I thought so; they like the warmth of the bed, so we shall get on.
Are they adders or vipers? I don't very much mind which, but on the
whole I prefer vipers.”
The old dame watched him breathlessly while he arranged his bed, and
in every way betrayed his firm resolution to spend the night in her
All at once an excited buzzing could be heard outside the closed
window, and a huge hornet bumped against the glass.
“Let the poor thing come in,” said the pilot, opening the window.
“No, no, not that one, kill it!” yelled the old dame.
“Why should I? Perhaps its young ones are in this room, and would
starve. Am I to lie here and listen to the screaming of hungry babies?
No, thank you! Come in, little wasp!”
“It will sting you!” shrieked the old dame.
“No, indeed it won't. It only stings the wicked.”
The window was open now. A big hornet, as large as a pigeon's egg,
flew in; buzzing like a bass string, it flew at once to the nest. And
then it was still.
The old dame left the attic, and the pilot got between the sheets.
When he came downstairs into the parlour on the following morning,
the old dame was not there. A black cat sat on the only chair and
purred; cats have been condemned to purr, because they are such lazy
beasts, and they must do something.
“Get up, pussy,” said the pilot, “and let me sit down.”
And he took the cat and put it on the hearth. But it was no ordinary
cat, for immediately sparks began to fly from its fur, and the chips
“If you can light a fire, you can make me some coffee,” said the
But the cat is so constituted that it never wants to do what it is
told, and so it began at once to swear and spit until the fire was out.
In the meantime the pilot had heard somebody leaning a spade against
the wall of the cottage. He looked out of the window and saw the old
dame standing in a pit which she had dug in the garden.
“I see you are digging a grave for me, old woman,” he said.
The old dame came in. When she saw Victor safe and sound, she was
beside herself with amazement; she confessed that up to now nobody had
ever left the attic alive, and that therefore she had dug his grave in
She was a little short-sighted, but it seemed to her that the pilot
was wearing a strange handkerchief round his neck.
“Ha ha! Have you ever seen such a handkerchief in all your life?”
laughed Victor, putting his hand up to his throat.
Wound round his neck was a snake which had tied itself in front into
a knot with two bright yellow spots; the spots were its ears, and its
eyes shone like diamonds.
“Show auntie your scarfpins, little pet,” said the pilot, gently
scratching its head, and the snake opened its mouth and disclosed two
sharp, pointed teeth right in the middle of it.
At the sight of them the old dame fell on her knees and said, “Now I
see that you have received my letter and understood its meaning. You
are a brave lad!”
“So the letter I got out of the automatic machine was from you,”
said the pilot, taking it from his breast pocket. “I shall have it
framed when I get home.”
Would you like to know what was written in the letter? Just these
few words in plain English, “Don't be bluffed,” which might be
translated, “Fortune favours the Brave.”
Yes, but how was it that the pilot could walk from the ship down the
passage?” asked Annie-Mary, when her mama had finished the story. “And
did he come back, or had he dreamed the whole story?”
“I'll tell you another time, little Miss Curiosity,” said her mama.
“And then there was a verse in the book—”
“What verse? Oh, I see ... in the snail shop. ... Well, I'm afraid
I've forgotten it. But you mustn't ask too many details, for it's only
a fairy tale, little girlie.”