WHEN I awoke I was very hazy in my head. The sky was blue and the sea was calm. At first I thought that I must have fallen asleep in the sun on the deck of the Curlew. And thinking that I would be late for my turn at the wheel, I tried to rise to my feet. I found I couldn’t; my arms were tied to something behind me with a piece of rope. By twisting my neck around I found this to be a mast, broken off short. Then I realized that I wasn’t sitting on a ship at all; I was only sitting on a piece of one. I began to feel uncomfortably scared. Screwing up my eyes, I searched the rim of the sea North, East, South and West: no land: no ships; nothing was in sight. I was alone in the ocean!
At last, little by little, my bruised head began to remember what had happened: first, the coming of the storm; the sails going overboard; then the big wave which had banged me against the door. But what had become of the Doctor and the others? What day was this, to-morrow or the day after?—And why was I sitting on only part of a ship?
Working my hand into my pocket, I found my penknife and cut the rope that tied me. This reminded me of a shipwreck story which Joe had once told me, of a captain who had tied his son to a mast in order that he shouldn’t be washed overboard by the gale. So of course it must have been the Doctor who had done the same to me.
But where was he?
The awful thought came to me that the Doctor and the rest of them must be drowned, since there was no other wreckage to be seen upon the waters. I got to my feet and stared around the sea again—Nothing—nothing but water and sky!
Presently a long way off I saw the small dark shape of a bird skimming low down over the swell. When it came quite close I saw it was a Stormy Petrel. I tried to talk to it, to see if it could give me news. But unluckily I hadn’t learned much seabird language and I couldn’t even attract its attention, much less make it understand what I wanted.
Twice it circled round my raft, lazily, with hardly a flip of the wing. And I could not help wondering, in spite of the distress I was in, where it had spent last night—how it, or any other living thing, had weathered such a smashing storm. It made me realize the great big difference between different creatures; and that size and strength are not everything. To this petrel, a frail little thing of feathers, much smaller and weaker than I, the Sea could do anything she liked, it seemed; and his only answer was a lazy, saucy flip of the wing! He was the one who should be called the able seaman. For, come raging gale, come sunlit calm, this wilderness of water was his home.
After swooping over the sea around me (just looking for food, I supposed) he went off in the direction from which he had come. And I was alone once more.
I found I was somewhat hungry—and a little thirsty too. I began to think all sorts of miserable thoughts, the way one does when he is lonesome and has missed breakfast. What was going to become of me now, if the Doctor and the rest were drowned? I would starve to death or die of thirst. Then the sun went behind some clouds and I felt cold. How many hundreds or thousands of miles was I from any land? What if another storm should come and smash up even this poor raft on which I stood?
I went on like this for a while, growing gloomier and gloomier, when suddenly I thought of Polynesia. “You’re always safe with the Doctor,” she had said. “He gets there. Remember that.”
I’m sure I wouldn’t have minded so much if he had been here with me. It was this being all alone that made me want to weep. And yet the petrel was alone!—What a baby I was, I told myself, to be scared to the verge of tears just by loneliness! I was quite safe where I was—for the present anyhow. John Dolittle wouldn’t get scared by a little thing like this. He only got excited when he made a discovery, found a new bug or something. And if what Polynesia had said was true, he couldn’t be drowned and things would come out all right in the end somehow.
I threw out my chest, buttoned up my collar and began walking up and down the short raft to keep warm. I would be like John Dolittle. I wouldn’t cry—And I wouldn’t get excited.
How long I paced back and forth I don’t know. But it was a long time—for I had nothing else to do.
At last I got tired and lay down to rest. And in spite of all my troubles, I soon fell fast asleep.
This time when I woke up, stars were staring down at me out of a cloudless sky. The sea was still calm; and my strange craft was rocking gently under me on an easy swell. All my fine courage left me as I gazed up into the big silent night and felt the pains of hunger and thirst set to work in my stomach harder than ever.
“Are you awake?” said a high silvery voice at my elbow.
I sprang up as though some one had stuck a pin in me. And there, perched at the very end of my raft, her beautiful golden tail glowing dimly in the starlight, sat Miranda, the Purple Bird-of-Paradise!
Never have I been so glad to see any one in my life. I almost fell into the water as I leapt to hug her.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” said she. “I guessed you must be tired after all you’ve been through—Don’t squash the life out of me, boy: I’m not a stuffed duck, you know.”
“Oh, Miranda, you dear old thing,” said I, “I’m so glad to see you. Tell me, where is the Doctor? Is he alive?”
“Of course he’s alive—and it’s my firm belief he always will be. He’s over there, about forty miles to the westward.”
“What’s he doing there?”
“He’s sitting on the other half of the Curlew shaving himself—or he was, when I left him.”
“Well, thank Heaven he’s alive!” said I—“And Bumpo—and the animals, are they all right?”
“Yes, they’re with him. Your ship broke in half in the storm. The Doctor had tied you down when he found you stunned. And the part you were on got separated and floated away. Golly, it was a storm! One has to be a gull or an albatross to stand that sort of weather. I had been watching for the Doctor for three weeks, from a cliff-top; but last night I had to take refuge in a cave to keep my tail-feathers from blowing out. As soon as I found the Doctor, he sent me off with some porpoises to help us in our search. There had been quite a gathering of sea-birds waiting to greet the Doctor; but the rough weather sort of broke up the arrangements that had been made to welcome him properly. It was the petrel that first gave us the tip where you were.”
“Well, but how can I get to the Doctor, Miranda?—I haven’t any oars.”
“Get to him!—Why, you’re going to him now. Look behind you.”
I turned around. The moon was just rising on the sea’s edge. And I now saw that my raft was moving through the water, but so gently that I had not noticed it before.
“What’s moving us?” I asked.
“The porpoises,” said Miranda.
I went to the back of the raft and looked down into the water. And just below the surface I could see the dim forms of four big porpoises, their sleek skins glinting in the moonlight, pushing at the raft with their noses.
“They’re old friends of the Doctor’s,” said Miranda. “They’d do anything for John Dolittle. We should see his party soon now. We’re pretty near the place I left them—Yes, there they are! See that dark shape?—No, more to the right of where you’re looking. Can’t you make out the figure of the black man standing against the sky?—Now Chee-Chee spies us—he’s waving. Don’t you see them?”
I didn’t—for my eyes were not as sharp as Miranda’s. But presently from somewhere in the murky dusk I heard Bumpo singing his African comic songs with the full force of his enormous voice. And in a little, by peering and peering in the direction of the sound, I at last made out a dim mass of tattered, splintered wreckage—all that remained of the poor Curlew—floating low down upon the water.
A hulloa came through the night. And I answered it. We kept it up, calling to one another back and forth across the calm night sea. And a few minutes later the two halves of our brave little ruined ship bumped gently together again.
Now that I was nearer and the moon was higher I could see more plainly. Their half of the ship was much bigger than mine.
It lay partly upon its side; and most of them were perched upon the top munching ship’s biscuit.
But close down to the edge of the water, using the sea’s calm surface for a mirror and a piece of broken bottle for a razor, John Dolittle was shaving his face by the light of the moon.