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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Captured by Apes » CHAPTER XXVI. A KINGLY GRAVE-DIGGER.
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CHAPTER XXVI. A KINGLY GRAVE-DIGGER.
Philip had no very clear idea of where the skeleton was hanging. As is already known, he had accidentally come upon it during his journey from the beach; therefore the mimosas with the sinister-looking fruit were in a southerly direction from the village, but of more than that he was ignorant.

To find this spot in the night, and during the violent tempest, seemed an impossible task; but yet it must be attempted despite every danger, because such an opportunity might not present itself again for many days.

He made his way out through the ruined building, while his followers scampered in every direction to shelter their bodies from the rain (for a monkey is proverbially afraid of water), and crossed the road into the thicket without being perceived by any of the startled crowd.

There was not the slightest danger of meeting with one of his subjects during the journey unless the tempest should cease suddenly and Goliah send messengers in search of him; therefore he walked fearlessly forward after stopping behind the breastworks thrown up during the battle to arm himself[204] with a stout stick, which would serve as a shovel in the task of grave-digging.

The rain descended in torrents. The wind howled and shrieked among the trees, bending them almost to the earth, or here and there uprooting some sturdy fellow who refused to bow his crest before the storm, while fragments of branches, falling in every direction, threatened destruction to the reckless traveler. The lightning-flashes which darted across the entire horizon, illuminating during a few seconds the thicket as with the glare of the noonday sun, served oftentimes to disclose danger in his path, and it was only from the frequency of these bolts of light that he was enabled to make his way with any knowledge of direction.

His own skin was dry, although that of his assumed character was heavy with water, and, save for the fatigue of rapid walking, he was even more comfortable than he would have been in a close room surrounded by his animal followers. The knowledge that he had left the apes behind served to arouse a feeling of exultation, and he bounded forward like a prisoner who suddenly sees the road to liberty open before him when he had fancied his term of confinement not yet half ended.

Each time the electric flash came he looked around eagerly in search of the mimosas, and more than once did he mistakenly believe he had arrived at the end of his journey.

The storm was still raging furiously when he finally found that for which he sought.

[205]

Fully two minutes had passed without lightning, and then, as a terrific peal of thunder was followed by a violent blaze, he saw directly before him, swaying to and fro in the wind, the bones of himself—or of his predecessor, whichever may be the correct term.

As a certain well-known author has said: “Man has three distinct characters. Himself as God knows him, himself as his fellows know him, and himself as he knows himself.” It was this second character which Philip wished to hide, and, under the above proposition, could rightfully be said to be burying his own skeleton.

To dig a grave with a sharpened stick as his only tool was by no means an easy task, since, owing to the enormous size of the mandrill Captain Seaworth had killed, it was necessary to make the excavation fully seven feet long.

He worked, however, as men will when they know their lives depend upon the effort. He threw aside the dark loam with feverish haste, regardless alike of the pitiless rain and the hurtling branches, until, just as the storm ceased and the moon peeped out from among the flying clouds as if for no other purpose than to tint the rattling bones with a most unearthly radiance, the grave was made, and the time had come when the skeleton must be cut down from the branches.

As a matter of course the former king of the island had no trousers pockets, therefore Philip was without a knife; but so strong is instinct that he[206] attempted several times to insert his hand into the outer skin of his leg before realizing that his new clothes contained no convenient receptacle for tools. The rope by which the skeleton had been suspended was strong and resisted all his efforts to break it. It was necessary to ascend the tree and untie the halter, after which the well-dried anatomy fell to the ground with a clatter such as the end-man in a minstrel-show makes when he wishes to excite the greatest possible applause.

It was necessary to work now with the utmost haste, for, the tempest having ceased, it was more than probable his followers would soon come in pursuit, and Philip interred his skeleton with all possible speed, trampling the earth down until convinced that only the most careful scrutiny could reveal his secret.

Then he retraced his steps as best he could; but more than once did he deviate from the proper course, and the result of these involuntary detours was that day had already begun to break when he arrived within sight of the village.

Here was the loyalty of his subjects made manifest once more. Every individual ape had been looking for his king, occupying the piles of stones or roofs of houses as points of vantage, and when Philip appeared from the thicket a howl of joy went up which seemed to shake the very island.

During five hours the animal-trainer had been a man, but now he was an ape again, so to remain until rescuers should arrive or he be tempted to[207] steal out once more under the friendly cover of a tempest.

Of course the first step which either king or peasant would naturally take after morning dawned was to procure breakfast, and Philip realized how necessary such a course was from the faintness which seized upon him after his arduous labors.

To enter the kitchen and there satisfy his hunger would be to squander all the provisions stored in the cupboards, for his subjects would make short work of Captain Seaworth’s dainties. Therefore, with a view of saving the stock for an emergency, Philip led the way, followed by hundreds of grinning, chattering, frolicsome monkeys, to the banana plantation, where all were soon busily engaged hunting for the yellow fruit.

It was Goliah himself who assumed the task of providing the king with food, and when the party had eaten their fill Philip led them back to the village, where for some moments he stood undecided as to how he should further comport himself.

To roam about the forest with such a band might be to excite the gravest suspicions in the minds of his subjects because of his inability to climb a tree or to swing himself from the branches by the aid of his tail; therefore it was necessary he should, so far as possible, remain in the settlement.

The sight of the ruined buildings, in front of which were the enormous piles of stones thrown up as breastworks, gave him a desire to see these habitations restored to their former appearance, and[208] the thought came that it would not be a long task to raise houses on the same plan, with walls formed of the ammunition gathered by the apes.

It hardly seemed probable the long-tailed subjects could be made to act the part of builders, but they would serve to carry the materials from one point to another, and he resolved to set about the work of reconstructing the settlement as a pleasant and profitable way of spending his time.

To this end he began to drag away the splintered timbers, and instantly a thousand pairs of hands were at work following his example, until all the debris had been removed from the proposed site of the building. That which would have required a week of his time was done in an hour, and the amateur architect understood that his labors might yet be crowned with success.

Then he placed some of the larger stones on such a line as he intended the walls should be erected upon. Instantly every ape on the island was seized with a mania for building, laboring with such a will that it required all his efforts to restrain what was misdirected zeal, otherwise a wall like that of China might have been put up, provided there had been sufficient materials at hand.

It was necessary he should find something which would serve as mortar; and to that end, as soon as he could control his too willing subjects he searched the store-houses until to his great joy he found at least twenty barrels of plaster, which Captain Seaworth had brought in case it might be needed for just such a purpose.

[209]

To have these heavy barrels conveyed to the scene of operations it was only necessary for Philip to roll one, when the whole twenty came out like horses on a race-track; and as he began to open the plaster and mix it with water, so did they.

Seized with a rage for building, they made mortar, broke stone, ran here and there, and assisted Philip until the entire party were whitened with plaster from the ends of their flattened noses to their toes, causing them to look like veritable workmen with white over-garments; but, unlike other workmen, they neither insisted that eight hours made up a full day’s work, nor did they idle away valuable time in frivolous conversation.

Before the day was half spent Philip began to experience the disagreeable consequences of his midnight journey in the rain. His predecessor’s hide had been thoroughly soaked during the labor of grave-digging, and now that the sun sent down his hottest rays the skin began to shrink, aided by the heat of his body and the warmth of the atmosphere, until it inclosed him as if in a case of iron. Struggle as he might, it was impossible to stretch the stout hide by any motion of his body, and the cold perspiration gathered on his forehead as he realized what the position of affairs would be in case the tightly-fitting garment should burst asunder.

He no longer dared to make any movement, but stood erect with an expression of anxiety on his face; and, true to their habits of mimicry, his subjects did the same until Philip could not resist[210] the inclination to laugh aloud as the thought presented itself that it would be ridiculous, indeed, if every member of the party were also waiting with the same anxiety to ascertain whether or no his own skin was about to split.

When he burst forth in uncontrollable laughter the entire army of laborers did the same until the air resounded with their cries, and once more was Philip forced to exercise the greatest caution lest even his own mirth should hasten the catastrophe he so greatly feared.

Fortunately, however, his predecessor’s hide was now fully shrunken, and although it fitted him quite as tightly as did his own skin, he had every reason to believe it would remain intact unless he should be so careless as to make some violent exertion.


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