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首页 » 儿童英文小说 » The Merman and The Figure-Head » CHAPTER III. THE FIGURE-HEAD.
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In the mean time, a most beautiful thing had grown out of the oak block in Job Chippit’s shop.

Day by day Job worked at the figure-head of the Sea-nymph, Master Torrey’s beautiful new brig that was lying on the stocks all but ready for the launch. Job spared no pains on his work, and his wonderful success really astonished himself.

Every one wanted to see the new figure-head, but Job kept it locked up in an inner room, and would admit no one but Master Torrey and Lucy Peabody. Lucy had been willing to put on a white dress and stand for a model, but the figure did not look at all like Lucy. It was taller, more slender, and the features were nothing like hers. Once or twice Lucy had persuaded Anna Jane Shuttleworth with her into Job’s shop. The old man had studied her face, and worked every moment of the young lady’s stay. He stared at Anna in meeting-time in a way that almost disturbed that young woman’s composure, but she looked straight before her and took no notice. It was impossible to tell how she felt. Anna was always “very reserved,” people said. They had an idea that treasures of wisdom, good sense and virtue were at once indicated and concealed by that statue-like air and silence.

Master Torrey was delighted with the nymph, which was, indeed, most beautiful. She stood on a point of rock, leaning lightly forward. Her rounded arms upheld a silvered vase of antique fashion; her head was thrown back; her hair, crowned with seaweed and coral, streamed over her shoulders as though blown by the same breeze that wafted back the thin robe from her dainty feet and ankles; the face was of the regular classic type, yet not quite human in its cold purity; the eyes looked out over the sea toward the far horizon. It was really quite extraordinary how the old Yankee wood-carver could have accomplished such a work of art. It looked, also, as if it might, if it chose, open its lips and speak, but you were quite certain it never would choose, it was so life-like and yet so still.

Job had sent to Boston and procured finer colors than he had ever used before, and laid them on with a cunning hand. He had painted the sea lady’s robe a pale sea-green; over it fell her hair—not yellow with golden lights, but soft flaxen; the eyes were blue, and the faintest sea-shell pink tinged the lips and cheeks. It was altogether the most beautiful figure-head that any one had ever seen.

“There! I reckon she’s about done,” said Job as he laid down his last brush and stood contemplating his work. There was an odd look on the old man’s face, half satisfaction, half dislike.

“She’s a pretty cretur, ain’t she?” he said to Lucy Peabody.

“Beautiful,” said Lucy, but speaking with a slight effort.

“Don’t you like her?” said Job in a doubtful tone.

“‘Don’t you like her?’ said Job, in a doubtful tone.”

“She’s very beautiful, Uncle Job, but—but”—and Lucy hesitated—“I shouldn’t want any one I cared for to love a woman like that.”

“Waal, I can’t say’s I would myself,” said Job. “But this ain’t a woman, you see; it’s one of them nimps. They wa’n’t like real human girls, you know.”

“But she is not kind,” said Lucy, with a little shiver. “She would see men drowning before her eyes, and would not put out her hand to help them. I think she took those pearl bracelets and her necklace from some poor dead girl she found floating in the sea. She wouldn’t mind; she would only care to dress herself with them.”

“I won’t say but that’s my notion of her too,” said Job. “Do you know, Lucy,” he continued, in a lower voice, “I can’t help feeling as if there was something more than common in this bit of wood all the while I’ve been doing it? It seemed as if ’twa’n’t me that was making of it up, but I was jest like some kind of a machine going along on some one else’s notion. Sometimes I am half skeered at the critter myself.”

“You meant to make her like Anna Jane Shuttleworth, didn’t you?” asked Lucy, suddenly.

“Waal, yis, I did kind o’ mean to give her a look of Anna Jane, ’cause Torrey, he’s so set on her, but I’ve got it more like her than I meant. Somehow, it seems as if it was more like her than she is herself.”

Lucy gave one more long look at the figure “I must go,” she said, with a little start. “Good-bye, Uncle Job;” and she flitted away by a side door.

Just then Master Torrey came into the shop, and with him came old Colonel Shuttleworth and his daughter. Colonel Shuttleworth was a pompous, portly man, in an embroidered waistcoat, plum-colored coat and lace ruffles.

“A pretty thing! a pretty thing!” he said, condescendingly. “How many guineas has she cost Master Torrey?”

“You didn’t expect I was going to make her for nothing, did you, cunnel?” said Job, who stood in no awe of the old man’s wealth, clothes or title.

“No, no, of course not,” said the colonel, trying to be dignified. “Um! ah! it seems to me this figure has something the look of my daughter. Anna, isn’t the new figure-head like you?”

“I don’t know, sir,” said Anna, who had dropped into a seat and sat looking at nothing in particular.

“She’s so delicate, so modest, she won’t notice,” thought her lover. “She is lovely, Job,” he cried aloud. “You have outdone yourself. Our sea lady is no mortal, but a goddess. She has everything noble in humanity, but none of its faults or weaknesses.”

“Umph!” said Job; “I don’t know about that. I’ve heard some of them goddesses was rather queer-acted people. Anyhow, I think I’d like the women folks best, not being a heathen god myself.”

“Why, Job, you don’t understand your own work,” said Master Torrey, half angrily. “She is too pure to be moved by our passions, too much exalted above humanity to be agitated by its troubles.”

“Waal now, that ain’t my notion of exaltation,” said Job. “‘Seems to me that’s more like havin’ no feelin’s at all, kind of too dull and stupid and full of herself to keer very much about anything. This wooden girl of ourn is uncommon handsome, though I say it, but bless you, Master Torrey! she hain’t got no more brains in her skull than a minnow. She’d be a kind of dead-and-alive sort of a critter always. If she had a husband, she’d never bother herself if he was in trouble. If she had a baby, she wouldn’t care much for it, only maybe to dress it up.”

The old man seemed strangely excited in this absurd discussion. Master Torrey, too, seemed much disturbed and not a little provoked. Anna Jane sat calm and still, and wondered whether that light green color in the nymph’s robe would become her. The colonel, who had not the faintest idea what the two men were talking about, looked from one to the other uncomprehending, and consequently slightly offended.

“Are you talking about this wooden image?” he said, wondering.

“Yes, to be sure, cunnel,” said Job, with an odd sound between a laugh and a groan.

“Come, child, it is time to go home,” said the colonel, loftily.

Anna Jane rose and took her father’s arm. Master Torrey followed them out of the shop without looking back or saying good-bye to his old friend. In a strange passion, Job caught up the axe and looked at the wooden nymph as if about to dash it in pieces. “What an old fool I am!” he said. “She ain’t only wood, and I’ll get my pay for her. Creation! it does beat all how contrary things turn out in this world!”

The figure-head of the Sea-nymph was carried through the streets in the midst of an admiring throng and fixed securely in its place on the beautiful new brig. A few days more, and the ship was launched and slid swiftly and safely into the sea. That night it was bright moonlight. Silver-gilt ripples were rising and falling along the coast and all over the bay. Now and then a fish would jump, scattering a shower of shining drops. Everything was very still around the Sea-nymph. She lay quite by herself at some distance from any other craft. There was no one on board but an old watchman, who was fast asleep. If he had been awake, he would have seen a long, bright ripple on the water coming nearer as some sea creature cut its way swiftly toward the new craft. It was our merman, who found himself drawn toward the land by a longing curiosity too strong for him to resist.

“It is all so quiet and still,” he thought. “There can be no possible danger, and I do so want to see what sort of houses these human creatures live in. There’s a new ship. I’m a great mind to go and look at it. What is that standing there on the end of it?”

The merman swam on slowly, debating whether he should really go and look. Something seemed at once to warn him away and to call him forward. He could not tell what was the matter with him. Once he turned to swim away. Then he made up his mind once for all, and dashed straight on toward the ship. He said over to himself a charm his grandfather had taught him: “Aski, kataski, lix tetrax, damnamenous,” words of power once written on the fish-bodied statue of the great goddess of Ephesus; but, dear me! it did him no good at all. All the while he was coming the wooden nymph stood up in her place, holding out her silver vase in both hands and looking over the sea with her painted eyes.

“What a lovely creature!” thought the merman. “She is looking at me; she holds her vase toward me.”

She was doing no such thing, of course—the wooden image—but he thought she was. He did not know that she would have looked just the same way if he had been an old porpoise instead of a young merman. He swam closer and closer. The moon shone on the painted face. The ship moved gently on the water. The merman thought the lady had inclined her head. In one moment he fell desperately, helplessly, in love with the oaken nymph. It certainly must have been the doing of the old Witch of the Sea. Some influence of the kind must have been at work, or else a merman who had been to college would surely have had more sense than to become enamored of an oak block. But whether it was the witch’s work, or whether it was the drop of human blood in his veins, or whether it was fate, that is just what he did—he fell in love with a wooden image. He forgot his home, his old grandfather, his sisters, his best friend, who loved him like a brother and who had saved his life in the war. As for the mermaid who had given him the ring, he never gave her a thought. He didn’t care for anything in the world but that painted image smiling up there and holding its vase. He saw nothing but that, and, in fact, he didn’t see that either, for he saw it as if it were alive.

“Oh I wish I knew her name or what she is!” said the merman to himself. “She can’t be human. She is too beautiful.” He swam round and round and read the words “The Sea-nymph” painted under the figure. He gave a jump almost out of the water. “It is a nymph,” he said—“one of the Nereides or Oceanides. I thought they had left this world long ago. What can she be doing on that ship?”

He gazed at the wooden creature with all his heart in his eyes. He wished he were human that he might at least be a little like this lovely shape. He hated his own form. Was it likely the divine nymph would ever deign to notice a creature with a fish’s tail? Finally he ventured to speak.

“Fairest nymph,” he said.

He got no answer, but as the shadow of a cloud flitted across her face, and then the moon shone on her, he thought the nymph smiled. If there had been any possible way, he would certainly have climbed up to her, though he knew he could not live five minutes out of the water. He did not think anything about that, the poor silly merman. He was so infatuated that he would have been glad to die beside her. He stayed there the whole night talking to the wooden sea-nymph, and when the image moved with the rise and fall of the water he thought she inclined her head toward him. He said the most extravagant things to her; he told her all he had ever thought or felt, things he had never spoken to his best friend who loved him dearly; he poured out all his heart into the deaf ears of the wooden nymph. The image kept looking out over the water with its painted eyes, and the merman thought, “Now at last I have found some one who can understand me.”

It was growing to gray dawn when a huge sea gull came sweeping over the water, and poised and hovered over the merman’s head.

“Hallo!” said the sea-gull to the merman, “what are you up to, young man?”

The merman was disgusted and made no answer.

“You’d better clear out of this,” said the gull. “If they catch you, they’ll make a show of you and wheel you round the streets in a tub of water for sixpence a sight.”

“Be so good as to reserve your anxiety for your own affairs,” said the merman, haughtily. He had always been sweet-tempered, but now he felt as if he must have a quarrel with some one. He had a general impression that every living creature was his rival and enemy. He didn’t just know what he wanted, but he was determined to have it.

“Highty tighty!” said the sea-gull. “Don’t put yourself out. What have we here? A pretty wooden image, upon my word!” and the gull perched on the sea-nymph’s head and scratched his ear with one claw. The merman went almost wild at the sight.

“You profane wretch!” he shouted; “how dare you? Oh, good heavens, that I should see her so insulted and not be able to help her. Oh, why can’t I fly?”

“’Cause you hain’t got no wings,” said the vulgar bird, flapping his own wide white pinions. “Why shouldn’t I perch here as well as on any other post? It’s none of your funeral.”

“Post!” said the merman, in a fury.

“Yes, post! Why? You don’t mean to say you think this thing’s alive?”

“Alive! She is a goddess, a nymph, an angel!”

“Well, you are a muff,” said the gull, with immense contempt. “If I ever! Look here! if you don’t want a harpoon in you, you had better quit.”

“I’ll wring your neck,” said the merman, in a rage.

“Skee-ee-eek!” screamed the gull. “Will you have it now or wait till you get it? Take your own way, if you only know what it is;” and the gull lifted his wings and swept off over the water, laughing frantically. The wooden lady kept looking over the sea.

“What noble composure! what breeding!” thought the merman. “She scorns to notice a creature like that. How much more noble and womanly is this modest reserve and silence than the chatter and laughing of our mermaids!”

It grew lighter and lighter; sounds of life were heard from the shore; a boat put out on the bay; presently the workmen began to come on board the brig.

“Any of those human beings can speak to her,” thought the merman. He was frantically jealous of an old ship carpenter with a wooden leg.

One of the workmen caught a glimpse of him. “Ho!” said he, “there’s an odd fish! Who’s got a harpoon?”

The merman had just sense enough left to see that if he was harpooned in the morning he couldn’t court the goddess at night. He dived and swam away, for mermen, although they are warm-blooded animals, are not obliged to come up to the top of the water to breathe.

He hid all day long under the timbers of an old wharf, and when it was still at night he came out again and swam toward The Sea-nymph. Some one had covered up the figure with an old sheet to keep the dust off. The merman thought she had put on a veil.

“What charming modesty!” he said. “She don’t wish to be seen by these human beings, or perhaps I offended her by my staring.”

He called her every lovely name he could invent or think of. He got no answer, of course, but that was her feminine reserve, the merman thought.

“Speech is silvern, silence is golden,” he said. So it went on all the time the new brig was being fitted up. The merman lived a wretched life. Two or three times he was seen and chased by the fishermen. A talk went about of the odd creature that haunted the water near the new ship. Some one was always on the lookout for him, and once he was nearly caught. They kept watch for him at night. It was only now and then that he could worship his wooden love for an hour.

All the time the old sheet was over her head, but the merman only loved her the better. He hid under the old wharf by day, for though he knew how to make himself invisible to mermen, the charm hadn’t the slightest effect where Yankees were concerned. He lived on whatever he could catch, but he had very little appetite. The shallow harbor water did not agree with his constitution. He grew thin and hollow-eyed, a mere ghost of a merman, but he was constant to his wooden image.

Meantime, the ship was finished and the cargo was stowed away. One day, glancing out from his place, he saw that the nymph was unveiled and was standing in her old fashion, lovely as ever. She was looking straight at him, the merman thought. “She is anxious about my safety,” he said, with delight, for he did not know that the image just looked toward the old wharf because it happened to be in the way.

“Dearest,” he said, “I would follow you over the whole ocean for such a look as that!”

That night there were so many men on board the brig that the merman did not dare go near her. The next morning the ship spread her sails and went out of the harbor with a fair wind, bound for Lisbon and the Mediterranean. That same evening there was a great gathering at Colonel Shuttleworth’s. Master Torrey was married to Anna Jane.

The merman followed the ship at a long distance. He dared not go too near in the daytime for fear of the harpoon that had been thrown at him once or twice. Then it came into his head that the lovely nymph was in some mysterious way held captive by these human creatures. He swore to deliver her if it cost him his life, for which he cared only as it could serve his goddess, for that she was a goddess he fully believed.

He swam in the wake of the ship, and it was very seldom that he could come up and look his idol in the face. The sailors kept a sharp look-out for him. They thought he was some sort of monster, the poor innocent merman, and had harpoons ready to throw at him whenever he showed himself. But for all this he followed The Sea-nymph across the Atlantic. He knew he was not likely to meet any of his own people, for the merfolk avoid ships whenever they can, and do not frequent the highway between the two continents.

One day, however, he was so possessed with a desire for the sight of his love that, utterly reckless, he swam directly before the ship and stretched out his arms to the wooden image. “I am here! I will die for you!” he cried, for he thought she was suffering in her captivity and wanted comfort. There was a shout from the sailors; one flung a fish spear, another fired a gun. The captain ordered out the whale-boat, and they gave chase to the merman, for such they now saw it was. It was all that he could do to get away. He was a very fast swimmer, however, and as he was not obliged to come up to breathe, they soon lost sight of him. He distanced the boat, but he found when he stopped that the bullet from the gun had grazed his shoulder, and that he had lost blood and was suffering pain. “It is for her,” thought the merman as he tried to stanch the blood with his pocket handkerchief.

Just then a huge sperm whale came dashing up.

“Why, what in the world are you doing here?” said the whale, surprised. “Have those wretches of men been chasing you?”

“Yes,” said the merman, his eyes flashing; “you may well call them wretches. Do you know who it is they hold prisoner in their hateful ship? The loveliest sea-nymph in the world.”

“How do you know?” said the whale.

“I have seen her. I have followed her all the way from home. She stands holding out a silver vase. Every creature in the sea ought to fly to deliver her. If I was only as big and strong as you! These men are your enemies as well as mine and hers. I know how they kill you whales whenever they can. You can sink that ship if you like and deliver the goddess.”

The whale was so astonished that he had to go to the top of the water and blow. “My dear sir,” said he, diving down again, “you are under some strange mistake. That is nothing but wood, that figure on the ship, as sure as my name is Moby Dick.”

“You great stupid creature, where are your eyes?” said the merman in a passion, and yet he was rather struck by the whale’s remarks too.

“In my head,” said Moby Dick, “and I shouldn’t think yours were. Why they put some such thing on all the ships—women, dolphins, what not. I’ve seen dozens of ’em. I know about nymphs. I used to read about ’em in the old classical dictionary in our school. Every school of whales of any pretension has one. If she was a sea goddess, do you suppose she’d stand there in all weathers? Besides, there are no nymphs.”

“Then you won’t sink the ship?” said the merman.

“Certainly not; she’s only a merchant ship. If she was a whaler, I would with pleasure. I’ve done it before now, but that was in self-defence. I’m not going to drown a lot of folks because you have lost your wits. Come, come, my young friend, go home to your family. I dare say your mother don’t know you’re out. You are too tired to swim after that ship, and you are hurt besides. Let me take you home on my back; I’d just as soon swim your way as any other.”

The merman was a little affected by the whale’s tone of kindness, but he was too much possessed with his wooden love to accept the offer.

“No! no!” he cried, “I must follow her to the ends of the earth. Something tells me she will yet be mine.”

“And suppose she should be?” said Moby Dick. “Why, she’s only a stick cut and painted. What would the ladies of your family think if you brought home a wooden wife?”

“You are blind,” said the merman, swimming away.

“You are cracked!” the whale shouted after him, but the merman was already out of hearing.

“Dear! dear!” said Moby Dick. “What a pity! If I can find any of the mermen, I’ll tell them about him. He ought not to be left to himself;” and he shook his huge head solemnly and swam away in an opposite direction.


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