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THE QUEEN OF THE PIRATE ISLE
by Bret Harte
I first knew her as the Queen of the Pirate Isle. To the best of my recollection she had no reasonable right to that title. She was only nine years old, inclined to plumpness and good humor, deprecated violence, and had never been to sea. Need it be added that she did NOT live in an island and that her name was Polly?
Perhaps I ought to explain that she had already known other experiences of a purely imaginative character. Part of her existence had been passed as a Beggar Child,--solely indicated by a shawl tightly folded round her shoulders, and chills; as a Schoolmistress, unnecessarily severe; as a Preacher, singularly personal in his remarks, and once, after reading one of Cooper's novels, as an Indian Maiden. This was, I believe, the only instance when she had borrowed from another's fiction. Most of the characters that she assumed for days and sometimes weeks at a time were purely original in conception; some so much so as to be vague to the general understanding. I remember that her personation of a certain Mrs. Smith, whose individuality was supposed to be sufficiently represented by a sunbonnet worn wrong side before and a weekly addition to her family, was never perfectly appreciated by her own circle although she lived the character for a month. Another creation known as "The Proud Lady"--a being whose excessive and unreasonable haughtiness was so pronounced as to give her features the expression of extreme nausea--caused her mother so much alarm that it had to be abandoned. This was easily effected. The Proud Lady was understood to have died. Indeed, most of Polly's impersonations were got rid of in this way, although it by no means prevented their subsequent reappearance. "I thought Mrs. Smith was dead," remonstrated her mother at the posthumous appearance of that lady with a new infant. "She was buried alive and kem to!" said Polly with a melancholy air. Fortunately, the representation of a resuscitated person required such extraordinary acting, and was, through some uncertainty of conception, so closely allied in facial expression to the Proud Lady, that Mrs. Smith was resuscitated only for a day.
The origin of the title of the Queen of the Pirate Isle may be briefly stated as follows:--
An hour after luncheon, one day, Polly, Hickory Hunt, her cousin, and Wan Lee, a Chinese page, were crossing the nursery floor in a Chinese junk. The sea was calm and the sky cloudless. Any change in the weather was as unexpected as it is in books. Suddenly a West Indian Hurricane, purely local in character and unfelt anywhere else, struck Master Hickory and threw him overboard, whence, wildly swimming for his life and carrying Polly on his back, he eventually reached a Desert Island in the closet. Here the rescued party put up a tent made of a table-cloth providentially snatched from the raging billows, and, from two o'clock until four, passed six weeks on the island, supported only by a piece of candle, a box of matches, and two peppermint lozenges. It was at this time that it became necessary to account for Polly's existence among them, and this was only effected by an alarming sacrifice of their morality; Hickory and Wan Lee instantly became PIRATES, and at once elected Polly as their Queen. The royal duties, which seemed to be purely maternal, consisted in putting the Pirates to bed after a day of rapine and bloodshed, and in feeding them with licorice water through a quill in a small bottle. Limited as her functions were, Polly performed them with inimitable gravity and unquestioned sincerity. Even when her companions sometimes hesitated from actual hunger or fatigue and forgot their guilty part, she never faltered. It was her real existence; her other life of being washed, dressed, and put to bed at certain hours by her mother was the ILLUSION.
Doubt and skepticism came at last,--and came from Wan Lee! Wan Lee of all creatures! Wan Lee, whose silent, stolid, mechanical performance of a pirate's duties--a perfect imitation like all his household work--had been their one delight and fascination!
It was just after the exciting capture of a merchantman, with the indiscriminate slaughter of all on board,--a spectacle on which the round blue eyes of the plump Polly had gazed with royal and maternal tolerance,--and they were burying the booty, two tablespoons and a thimble, in the corner of the closet, when Wan Lee stolidly rose.
"Melican boy pleenty foolee! Melican boy no Pilat!" said the little Chinaman, substituting "l's" for "r's" after his usual fashion.
"Wotcher say?" said Hickory, reddening with sudden confusion.
"Melican boy's papa heap lickee him--s'pose him leal Pilat," continued Wan Lee doggedly. "Melican boy Pilat INSIDE housee. Chinee boy Pilat OUTSIDE housee. First chop Pilat."
Staggered by this humiliating statement, Hickory recovered himself in character. "Ah! Ho!" he shrieked, dancing wildly on one leg, "Mutiny and Splordinashun! 'Way with him to the yard-arm."
"Yald-alm--heap foolee! Alee same clothes-horse for washee washee."
It was here necessary for the Pirate Queen to assert her authority, which, as I have before stated, was somewhat confusingly maternal.
"Go to bed instantly without your supper," she said seriously. "Really, I never saw such bad pirates. Say your prayers, and see that you're up early to church tomorrow."
It should be explained that in deference to Polly's proficiency as a preacher, and probably as a relief to their uneasy consciences, Divine Service had always been held on the Island. But Wan Lee continued:--
"Me no shabbee Pilat INSIDE housee; me shabbee Pilat OUTSIDE housee. S'pose you lun away longside Chinee boy--Chinee boy make you Pilat."
Hickory softly scratched his leg; while a broad, bashful smile almost closed his small eyes. "Wot?" he asked.
"Mebbe you too flightened to lun away. Melican boy's papa heap lickee."
This last infamous suggestion fired the corsair's blood. "Dy'ar think we daresen't?" said Hickory desperately, but with an uneasy glance at Polly. "I'll show yer to-morrow."
The entrance of Polly's mother at this moment put an end to Polly's authority and dispersed the pirate band, but left Wan Lee's proposal and Hickory's rash acceptance ringing in the ears of the Pirate Queen. That evening she was unusually silent. She would have taken Bridget, her nurse, into her confidence, but this would have involved a long explanation of her own feelings, from which, like all imaginative children, she shrank. She, however, made preparation for the proposed flight by settling in her mind which of her two dolls she would take. A wooden creature with easy-going knees and movable hair seemed to be more fit for hard service and any indiscriminate scalping that might turn up hereafter. At supper, she timidly asked a question of Bridget. "Did ye ever hear the loikes uv that, ma'am?" said the Irish handmaid with affectionate pride. "Shure the darlint's head is filled noight and day with ancient history. She's after asking me now if Queens ever run away!" To Polly's remorseful confusion here her good father, equally proud of her precocious interest and his own knowledge, at once interfered with an unintelligible account of the abdication of various queens in history until Polly's head ached again. Well meant as it was, it only settled in the child's mind that she must keep the awful secret to herself and that no one could understand her.
The eventful day dawned without any unusual sign of importance. It was one of the cloudless summer days of the Californian foothills, bright, dry, and, as the morning advanced, hot in the white sunshine. The actual, prosaic house in which the Pirates apparently lived was a mile from a mining settlement on a beautiful ridge of pine woods sloping gently towards a valley on the one side, and on the other falling abruptly into a dark deep olive gulf of pine-trees, rocks, and patches of red soil. Beautiful as the slope was, looking over to the distant snow peaks which seemed to be in another world than theirs, the children found a greater attraction in the fascinating depths of a mysterious gulf, or canyon, as it was called, whose very name filled their ears with a weird music. To creep to the edge of the cliff, to sit upon the brown branches of some fallen pine, and, putting aside the dried tassels, to look down upon the backs of wheeling hawks that seemed to hang in mid-air was a never-failing delight. Here Polly would try to trace the winding red ribbon of road that was continually losing itself among the dense pines of the opposite mountains; here she would listen to the far-off strokes of a woodman's axe, or the rattle of some heavy wagon, miles away, crossing the pebbles of a dried-up watercourse. Here, too, the prevailing colors of the mountains, red and white and green, most showed themselves. There were no frowning rocks to depress the children's fancy, but everywhere along the ridge pure white quartz bared itself through the red earth like smiling teeth; the very pebbles they played with were streaked with shining mica like bits of looking-glass. The distance was always green and summer-like, but the color they most loved, and which was most familiar to them, was the dark red of the ground beneath their feet everywhere. It showed itself in the roadside bushes; its red dust pervaded the leaves of the overhanging laurel; it colored their shoes and pinafores; I am afraid it was often seen in Indian-like patches on their faces and hands. That it may have often given a sanguinary tone to their fancies I have every reason to believe.
It was on this ridge that the three children gathered at ten o'clock that morning. An earlier flight had been impossible on account of Wan Lee being obliged to perform his regular duty of blacking the shoes of Polly and Hickory before breakfast,--a menial act which in the pure republic of childhood was never thought inconsistent with the loftiest piratical ambition. On the ridge they met one "Patsey," the son of a neighbor, sun-burned, broad- brimmed hatted, red-handed, like themselves. As there were afterwards some doubts expressed whether he joined the Pirates of his own free will, or was captured by them, I endeavor to give the colloquy exactly as it occurred:--
Patsey: "Hallo, fellers."
The Pirates: "Hello!"
Patsey: "Goin' to hunt bars? Dad seed a lot o' tracks at sun-up."
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