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首页 » 儿童英文小说 » The Merman and The Figure-Head » CHAPTER I. THE SEA-NYMPH.
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“I may be wrong, but I think it a pity

For a movable doll to be made so pretty.”

Doll Poems.

“I shall call her the Sea-nymph,” said Master Isaac Torrey.

“Umph!” said his clerk, Ichabod Sterns, looking over his spectacles at his master.

“And why not The Sea-nymph, pray?” demanded Master Torrey. “Why, I say, should I not call my fine new brig The Sea-nymph if it pleases my fancy?”

“Fancy!” said Ichabod Sterns, putting his head on one side. “Fancy! Umph!”

Now this was most exasperating conduct on Ichabod’s part, and as such Master Torrey felt it.

“Yes, if it pleases my fancy,” he repeated, defiantly. “What right have you, Ichabod Sterns, to object to that, I should like to know? If I chose to name her after the whole choir of all the nymphs that ever swam in the sea—Panope and Melite, Arethusa, Leucothea, Thetis, Cymodoce—what have you to say against it? Isn’t she to swim the seas and make her living out of the winds and waves? And what can you object to ‘The Sea-nymph?’ I’d like to hear. But it’s your nature to object, Ichabod Sterns. I’ve no doubt that you came objecting into the world, and I’ve no doubt that when your time comes you’ll object to dying. It would be just like you.”

“And death will mind my objections no more than you, Master Torrey,” said the old clerk, smiling rather grimly as Master Torrey ceased his pacing up and down the room and flung himself into a chair.

“But what is your objection to the name?” asked the merchant, calming down a little.

“Did I object?” said Ichabod Sterns.

“Didn’t you? You were bristling all over with objections from the toe of your shoe to the top of your wig.” Ichabod involuntarily put up his hand to his wig. “Why isn’t it a good name for a ship?”

“Nay, I know naught against it, Master Torrey, only it is a heathenish kind of name for a ship that is to sail out of our decent Christian town of Salem.”

“Heathenish! Let me tell you, Master Ichabod, that this world owes a vast deal to the heathen—more than she does to some Christians I could name.”

Now this awful speech was enough to make the very pig tails of many of Master Torrey’s acquaintance stand on end with horror and surprise. But Ichabod was used to his master’s ways, so he did not jump out of his chair, but only looked to the door to be sure that no one had overheard the terrible statement, for had such been the case there is no telling what might have come to pass.

“How do you make that out, Master Torrey?” he said, composedly.

“Did you ever happen to hear of Socrates or Cicero?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of ’em,” said Ichabod.

“And did you ever hear of the Duke of Alva, or Cardinal Pole, or Bloody Queen Mary, or Catenat?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of ’em,” returned Ichabod again, a little fiercely.

“And which was the better man, the Athenian or the Christians who burnt their fellows at the stake?” said Master Torrey, triumphantly, as one who had made a point.

“Umph!” said Ichabod; “I’m not a scholar like you, Master Torrey, but I’d like you to tell me whether they were Christians by name that poisoned Socrates and murdered Cicero?”

“Well, no,” said the merchant.

“Umph!” said Ichabod Sterns again, leaning back on his chair and rubbing his hands slowly one over the other.

“Well, what of that?” said Master Torrey, a little taken aback.

“Oh, nothing, sir,” said Ichabod; “we have wandered a long way from the name of the new brig.”

“She shall be The Sea-nymph,” said Master Torrey with decision. “What could be better?”

“I thought, Master Torrey, you might have liked to call her the Anna Jane,” said Ichabod, with a little cracked laugh like an amused crow.

Master Torrey colored high, but not with displeasure.

“I wouldn’t venture, Ichabod, I wouldn’t dare. She’s too shy, too modest, to be pleased with such an open compliment.”

“Umph!” said the clerk again. It seemed to be a way he had. “But you are determined to call her The Sea-nymph, Master Torrey?”

“Ah, am I!” replied Torrey, who seemed by no means disposed to pursue the subject of the “inexpressive she,” whoever it might be. “And she shall have the handsomest figure-head that Job Chippit can carve; and it sha’n’t be a mere head and shoulders either, it shall be a full-length figure.”

“It will cost a good penny, master. Job’s prices are high.”

“There’s another objection! Who cares what it costs? Am I a destitute person? Am I an absolute pauper? Am I like to apply to the selectmen to be supported by the town?”

“Not yet, master,” said Ichabod, gathering his papers together. “But if we go to following our fancies”—scornful emphasis—“there is no telling where we may end;” and without giving his master time to reply, Ichabod sped out of the counting-room.

Now I am not going to tell you a long story about Master Torrey, though I might do so if I had not a tale to tell you about something else—namely, this sea-nymph and the merman who figure at the head of this story. I was once told by a schoolmaster that in writing there was “nothing so important as a strict adherence to facts;” “fax” he called them. I treasured up this valuable precept in the inmost recesses of my mind, and I mean to adhere to facts if I possibly can. But I can’t adhere to facts till I get them, and to do that I don’t see but I shall have to tell you a little about Master Isaac Torrey, merchant of Salem, who was the means of putting this wonderful figure-head in the merman’s way. He was a merchant of Salem when Salem was a centre of trade, and sent many a brave ship to the Indies and the Mediterranean. He was thirty-four years old, and looked ten years younger. He was a man inclined to extravagance and luxury. He wore the handsomest waistcoats and the finest lace of any one in town. He had been educated in the gravest, strictest fashion of those grave days. His parents would have been horrified if they had found him reading a novel or a play, but they urged him on to study Virgil and Homer.

Now if you will promise, my young readers, never to tell your respected instructors, I will let you into a secret. The truth is that the poems of Virgil and Homer are all full of stories as interesting and charming as any boy or girl could desire. But this is a circumstance which most school-teachers make it their first object in life to conceal, and they generally succeed so well that their pupils for the most part go through their whole course of education and never discover that their Virgils and Homers are anything but stupid school-books—a sort of intellectual catacombs enshrining the dryest bones of grammar and parsing.

Now and then, however, a boy or girl finds out that there is food for the imagination in classic poetry. Such had been the case with Isaac Torrey, and the verses that he read with his tutor took such a hold upon him that he became what some of his friends called “half a heathen.” Not but that an acquaintance with the classics was thought becoming, nay, essential, to the character of a gentleman. In the speeches and writings of those days a due seasoning of allusions to the old gods and a sprinkling of Latin quotations was considered the proper thing. But this learning was rather looked upon as solid and ponderous furniture for the mind—an instrument of mental discipline. Fancy, imagination, amusement, were ideas much too light and frivolous to be connected with anything so grave, solid and respectable as the intellectual drill for which alone Latin and Greek were intended. So when Isaac Torrey talked about the old gods as if they had been real existences, and spoke of Achilles, Hector and Andromache as though they had been live creatures, he rather startled the excellent young divinity student who was his tutor.

Once upon a time his father detecting a smell of burning followed it up to Isaac’s room, where he found his son in the midst of a cloud of blue smoke. He asked the cause, and was told that in order to procure fair weather for the next day’s fishing excursion he (Isaac) had been sacrificing a paper bull to Jupiter.

Mr. Torrey senior was inexpressibly shocked at the thought that his son should have been guilty of such a heathenish performance. He gave the boy a lecture of an hour long, ending with a whipping. He called in the minister to talk to him. That gentleman, on being informed of the act of idolatry perpetrated in his parish, only took a prodigious pinch of snuff and said: “Pooh! pooh! child’s play! child’s play! No use to talk about it. Let the boy alone.” Mr. Torrey had the highest respect for his clergyman, and the boy was let alone accordingly, and was deeply grateful to the Rev. Mr. Bartlett.

Isaac grew up tall and handsome, went to school and to college, and in spite of numerous prophecies that he would never be good for anything, neither went into debt nor disgraced himself in any way. In due course of time he succeeded to his father’s business, and astonished every one by making money and being successful, in spite of his tasteful dress, his “wild ways” of talking and a report that he actually wrote poetry.

At the present time he was devoted to Miss Anna Jane Shuttleworth, a beautiful still image of a girl, who was supposed to have a great fund of good sense, propriety, prudence and piety, because she liked to sit still and sew from morning to night, and hardly ever opened her lips. Ichabod Sterns was the old clerk of Isaac’s father. He and his young master exasperated each other in many ways, but they were fond of each other for all that.

From the counting-house on the wharf and the talk with Ichabod Sterns, Master Torrey went to the workshop of Job Chippit, who in those days was famous for his skill in the carving of figure-heads.

In these times Job would probably have been a sculptor, have gone to Rome and been famous in marble and bronze. But the idea of such a thing had never entered his brain, and he went on from year to year making his wooden figures without any thought of a higher calling. He was a little dried, brown old man, with bright eyes slightly near-sighted. Year after year he carved Indian chiefs, eagles and wooden maidens for the Sally Anns and Susan Janes that sailed from the New England ports, portraits of public men, likenesses of William and Mary. He had once made a full-length figure of Oliver Cromwell for a certain stiff-necked old merchant of Boston who called his best ship after the great Protector—a statue which every one thought his finest work. “It was so natural,” said the good folks of Salem, and really I don’t know that they could have said anything better even if they had been art critics and had written for the newspapers.

True it was that all Job’s works had a certain live look to them that was almost startling sometimes. The Indians clenched their hatchets with a savageness quite alarming; they looked as though they might open their wooden lips and whoop. His female figures had life and character. Each governor, senator or general had his own peculiar expression and style.

Job was an artist, and, what was more, he was a well-paid artist. He quite appreciated his own genius, and got almost any prices he liked to ask for his signs and figure-heads. Job was the fashion, and no ship of any pretension sailed from a harbor along the coast but carried one of his masterpieces on the bow.

As Master Torrey entered his shop he was just putting the last touches of paint on an oaken bust destined to adorn Captain Peabody’s little schooner, The Flora. “So you have nearly finished The Flora’s figure-head,” said Master Torrey, whose tastes led him to be a frequent visitor at Job’s shop.

“And a pretty creature she is,” said Job, suspending his paint-brush full of the yellow-brown pigment with which he was tinging the rippled hair of the wooden lady, which was crowned with a garland of flowers carved with no mean skill.

“And the flowers! Don’t you think they are an improvement? What did Captain Peabody say to them?”

“He didn’t jest like them at first,” replied Job, continuing his work. “I didn’t myself, to begin with, for you know the ship is called after his wife, and nobody ever see old Mis’ Peabody going round with flowers in her hair; but the captain, sez he, ‘Job, I want to have you make it somethin’ like what Mis’ Peabody was when she was a young woman, ef you kin,’ sez he. ‘She was a most uncommon pretty girl when I went a-courting in Salsbury.’ Well, I was kind of struck with the idee, and the next day I went to meeting, and I sot and sot, and kind of studied the old lady’s face all through meetin’-time; and when they stood up to sing, the choir sang ‘Amsterdam.’ You know it’s a kind of livening sort of hymn. The old lady, she kind of brightened up, and it seemed as if I could see the young face sort of coming out behind the old one. Thinks I, ‘Job Chippit, you’ve got it,’ and when I come home, though it was the Sabbath day, I couldn’t hardly keep my hands off the tools, and the minute the sun was down I went at it. Then when you come in the next day and told me about the Flora them old folks used to think took care of the flowers and the spring, it seemed to suit so well with my notion of the old lady when she was young I couldn’t help stickin’ the flowers onto her head, like a fool as I was, for they wa’n’t in the bargain, and I sha’n’t get no extry pay for ’em.”

“And what did Captain Peabody say?” asked Master Torrey, whose own nature found sympathy in that of the artist.

“Oh, he was as tickled as could be when I’d persuaded him about the flowers. Lucy Peabody, she’s been to see it. She says she expects that’s the way her mother’ll look when she gets to heaven, and the flowers was like the crowns we read about in the Revelations. She’s an awful nice girl, Lucy Peabody. Anna Jane Shuttleworth was with her.”

“And what did she say?” asked Master Torrey, eagerly.

“Oh, nothing. Anna Jane don’t never have much to say for herself. I told her the wreath was your notion, and she kind of smiled, but she hadn’t a word to say. But look here, Master Torrey, am I to have the making of the figure-head for your new ship, and what is it to be?”

“That’s just what I have come to see you about, Job,” said Master Torrey. “I am going to call her the Sea-nymph, and I want you to make the most beautiful full-length figure of a sea-nymph to stand on her bow and look across the water when the brig goes sailing away into the South Seas.”

“A sea-nimp!” said Job; “and what sort of a critter may that be?”

“Did you never hear of them?”

“Never as I know of. There’s more fish in the sea than ever come out of it. I expect these nimps of yourn are some of the kind that never come out.”

“You never were more mistaken in your life, Job Chippit. They have been seen on the surface of the sea over and over again. We know almost all their names, and how could they have names if they were not real beings? Answer me that!”

“Oh!” said Job, standing back to take a general survey of his wooden Flora. “They’re some of them heathen young women your head is always so full of, Master Torrey?”

“Young women! Why they were goddesses, man, or a sort of goddesses. Was there not the white-footed Thetis, mother of Achilles? and did she not come to him with all her attendant nymphs—Melite, and Doris, and Galatea, and Panope?”

“I’ve hearn tell of her,” said Job, touching up the wreath on Flora’s head; “it’s in Lycidas:

‘The air was calm, and on the level brine

Slick Panope and all her sisters played.’

“Jest so; I kinder like to read that piece. It don’t seem to have so very much meanin’ to’t, I must say, but I sort of like the sound of it. Them nimps lived in the sea, or folks thought they did, didn’t they?”

“Yes, Job, as we live on the land. I’m by no means sure that I haven’t heard and seen Nereides and Oceanides myself when I’ve been out by moonlight on the bay or round the rocks.”

“I guess they never was any round these parts; it’s too cold for ’em. I knew an old sailor once that said he’d seen a mermaid, but I suppose you don’t want me to stick a curly fish’s tail on your figure-head?”

“No, indeed. Make her full length, like the most beautiful woman you know.”

“Hev’ you any idee how them young women used to dress. Master Torrey?” asked the wood-carver. “I’d like to go as near the nature of the critter as I could. I must say the notion takes my fancy. It’ll make kind of a variety, and it’s a pretty sort of an idee to name a ship after a thing that has its life out the sea.”

“I thought you’d think so,” said Master Torrey, gratified. “Ichabod Sterns said it was a heathenish name for a ship that was to sail out of Salem.”

“Well, you know Ichabod. He hain’t got much notion of anything of that sort. But now what’s your notion of these ’ere water women? Kinder cold-blooded critters they must have been, I’m thinking.” There was something in this last remark which seemed to grate on Master Torrey’s feelings, whatever they were.

“Why so?” he said, a little shortly.

“Oh, because it’s the natur’ of all the things in the sea. It must have been but a damp, uncomfortable way to live for warm-blooded folks; but tell me what they were like, or do you happen to have a picture of one?”

“I’m sorry to say I have not.”

“Did they think they was like folks, or did they live for ever?”

“Some said they were immortal, others that they were only very long-lived. Plutarch says they lived more than nine thousand years.”

“Creation! What awful old maids they must have been! That’s more than old Mrs. Skinner, who was eighty-six when she married John Dickenson, ’cause she said she wasn’t going to have ‘Miss’ on her tombstone if she could help it.”

“But then they always remained young and lovely, never grew old or changed. They used to say that whoever looked on an unveiled nymph went mad.”

“Waal, I’d risk that if I could see one. But they was kind of onlucky sort of critters, then, after all?” asked Job, who seemed to be inwardly dwelling on some thought which he was keeping out of the talk.

“Yes, to those who approached them rashly, but they were kind to those who worshiped them with reverence and offered them the gifts they loved.”

“Waal, they wa’n’t very peculiar in that. The most of women is capable of being coaxed if you only go to work the right way. I don’t know how it might have been with gals in the sea, but it ain’t best to be too dreadful diffident with the land kind always,” returned Job, with a sly smile. “But about this figure of ourn. I suppose it ought to have some kind of a light gown on, and hadn’t they—them nimps?—got no emblem, nor nothing of that sort, like Neptune’s trident? I’m going to make a Neptune for a ship Peleg Brag’s got. Her name was The Ann Eliza. But the young woman she was named for, she up and married Jonathan Whitbeck, so Peleg, he’s gont to call his ship The Neptune now. It’s the only way he can think of to take it out on Ann Eliza, and I don’t expect that’ll kill her; but didn’t these nimps have nothing about them to show what they were?”

“Sometimes seaweeds, or coral and shells. Sometimes they held a silver vase.”

“Waal, I reckon I’ll take the vase, if it’s agreeable to you, and make her holding it out, and put some seaweed and shells and sich onto her head, and let her hair fly loose, as if the wind blew it back. She won’t want no shoes nor sandals, nor nothing of that sort. What would be the use to a critter that passes its life swimming round the sea?”

“I see you understand. You’ll make her a beauty, Job?”

“I’ll do my best. You’ll want her to be a light-complected young woman, I guess.”

“They say the Nereides had green hair, but Virgil says Arethusa’s was golden, so we may make our nymph’s that color,” said Master Torrey, turning away to the window.

“Jes’ so; I’ll go right to work. I must get Lucy Peabody to put on a white gown and come and let me look at her a little. She’ll do it. She’s a real accommodating girl, is Lucy.”

“But Lucy is not fair.”

“No more she ain’t. Not white as milk, like Anna Jane Shuttleworth, but she’s a nice, pretty girl, and will be willing to oblige me. I’d never dare ask such a thing of old Colonel Shuttleworth’s daughter.”

Master Torrey smiled to himself as he thought of the silent, stately Anna standing as a model in the rude shop.

“But I’ll give the figure a look like Anna Jane, if I can,” pursued Job. “To my mind, she’s a great deal more like some such thing than she is like a real flesh-and-blood woman.”

To this Master Torrey made no answer, but smiled at the old man’s folly, and passed into the street without even asking what would be the price of the wooden sea-nymph.


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