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- In Midsummer Days and Other Tales - 5/20 -
The conductor felt compelled to get up and look, and he went, commending his soul into the hands of the Almighty.
Well, first of all he saw Louisa's print-dress disappearing through the kitchen door; then he saw blinds, but blinds which had been pulled up; he saw the dining-table covered with flowers, arranged in glasses; as many flowers as there had been on his wedding-day when he had brought his bride home.
And behold! The sun, the sun shone right into his face, shone on blue fjords and distant woods; it was the sun which had illuminated the sitting-room and played all the little tricks. He blessed the sun which had been up so early in the morning and made a game of the sluggard. And he blessed the memory of her whom he called the sun of his life. It was not a new name, but he could not think of a better one, and as it was, it was good enough.
And on his altar stood a rose, quite fresh, as fresh as _she_ had been before the never-ending work had tired her. Tired her! Yes, she had not been one of the strong ones; and life with its blows and knocks had been too brutal for her! He had not forgotten how, after a day's cleaning or ironing, she would throw herself on the sofa and say in a complaining little voice, "I am so tired!" Poor little thing, this earth had not been her home, she had only played once, on tour, as it were, and then had gone far away.
"She lacked sunshine," the doctor had said, for at that time they couldn't afford sun, because rooms on the sunny side are so expensive.
But now he had sun without having known it; he stood right in the sunlight, but it was too late. Midsummer was past, and soon the sun would disappear again, stay away for a year and then come back. Things are very strange in this world!
THE PILOT'S TROUBLES
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:--
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