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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 outside, pitching.

“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 sinking.

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 Strombus pespelicanus!”

“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 me.”

“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 surprise:—

“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 be.

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 background.

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 were blood-red.

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 his arms.

“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 stood still.

“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 ice.

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 cottage.

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 caught file.

“If you can light a fire, you can make me some coffee,” said the pilot.

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 anticipation.

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.”

 
 
 

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