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Mr. Captain and the Nymph

Wilkie Collins

  Mr Captain and the Nymph

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by


  ‘The Captain is still in the prime of life,’ the widow remarked. ‘He has given up his ship; he possesses a sufficient income, and he has nobody to live with him. I should like to know why he doesn’t marry.

  ‘The Captain was excessively rude to me,’ the widow’s younger sister added, on her side. ‘When we took leave of him in London, I asked if there was any chance of his joining us at Brighton this season. He turned his back on me as if I had mortally offended him; and he made me this extraordinary answer:

  “Miss! I hate the sight of the sea.” The man has been a sailor all his life. What does he mean by saying that he hates the sight of the sea?’

  These questions were addressed to a third person present—and the person was a man.

  He was entirely at the mercy of the widow and the widow’s sister. The other ladies of the family—who might have taken him under their protection—had gone to an evening concert. He was known to be the Captain’s friend, and to be well acquainted with events in the Captain’s later life. As it happened, he had reasons for hesitating to revive associations connected with those events. But what polite alternative was left to him? He must either inflict disappointment, and, worse still, aggravate curiosity—or he must resign himself to circumstances, and tell the ladies why the Captain would never marry, and why (sailor as he was) he hated the sight of the sea. They were both young women and handsome women—and the person to whom they had appealed (being a man) followed the example of submission to the sex, first set in the garden of Eden. He enlightened the ladies, in the terms that follow:


  The British merchantman, Fortuna, sailed from the port of Liverpool (at a date which it is not necessary to specify) with the morning tide. She was bound for certain islands in the Pacific Ocean, in search of a cargo of sandal-wood—a commodity which, in those days, found a ready and profitable market in the Chinese Empire.

  A large discretion was reposed in the Captain by the owners, who knew him to be not only trustworthy, but a man of rare ability, carefully cultivated during the leisure hours of a seafaring life. Devoted heart and soul to his professional duties, he was a hard reader and an excellent linguist as well. Having had considerable experience among the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, he had attentively studied their characters, and had mastered their language in more than one of its many dialects. Thanks to the valuable information thus obtained, the Captain was never at a loss to conciliate the islanders. He had more than once succeeded in finding a cargo, under circumstances in which other captains had failed.

  Possessing these merits, he had also his fair share of human defects. For instance, he was a little too conscious of his own good looks—of his bright chestnut hair and

  whiskers, of his beautiful blue eyes, of his fair white skin, which many a woman had looked at with the admiration that is akin to envy. His shapely hands were protected by gloves; a broad-brimmed hat sheltered his complexion in fine weather from the sun. He was nice in the choice of his perfumes; he never drank spirits, and the smell of tobacco was abhorrent to him. New men among his officers and his crew, seeing him in his cabin, perfectly dressed, washed, and brushed until he was an object speckless to look upon—a merchant-captain soft of voice, careful in his choice of words, devoted to study in his leisure hours—were apt to conclude that they had trusted themselves at sea under a commander who was an anomalous mixture of a schoolmaster and a dandy. But if the slightest infraction of discipline took place, or if the storm rose and the vessel proved to be in peril, it was soon discovered that the gloved hands held a rod of iron; that the soft voice could make itself heard through wind and sea from one end of the deck to the other; and that it issued orders which the greatest fool on board discovered to be orders that had saved the ship. Throughout his professional life, the general impression that this variously gifted man produced on the little world about him was always the same. Some few liked him; everybody respected him; nobody understood him. The Captain accepted these results. He persisted in reading his books and protecting his complexion, with this result: his owners shook hands with him, and put up with his gloves.

  The Fortuna touched at Rio for water, and for supplies of food which might prove useful in case of scurvy. In due time the ship rounded Cape Horn, favoured by the finest weather ever known in those latitudes by the oldest hand on board. The mate—one Mr Duncalf—a boozing, wheezing, self-confident old sea-dog, with a flaming face and a vast vocabulary of oaths, swore that he didn’t like it. ‘The foul weather’s coming, my lads,’

  said Mr Duncalf. ‘Mark my words, there’ll be wind enough to take the curl out of the Captain’s whiskers before we are many days older!’

  For one uneventful week, the ship cruised in search of the islands to which the owners had directed her. At the end of that time the wind took the predicted liberties with the Captain’s whiskers; and Mr Duncalf stood revealed to an admiring crew in the character of a true prophet.

  For three days and three nights the Fortuna ran before the storm, at the mercy of wind and sea. On the fourth morning the gale blew itself out, the sun appeared again towards noon, and the Captain was able to take an observation. The result informed him that he was in a part of the Pacific Ocean with which he was entirely unacquainted. Thereupon, the officers were called to a council in the cabin.

  Mr Duncalf, as became his rank, was consulted first. His opinion possessed the merit of brevity. ‘My lads, this ship’s bewitched. Take my word for it, we shall wish ourselves back in our own latitudes before we are many days older.’ Which, being interpreted, meant that Mr Duncalf was lost, like his superior officer, in a part of the ocean of which he knew nothing.

  The remaining members of the council, having no suggestions to offer, left the Captain to take his own way. He decided (the weather being fine again) to stand on under an easy press of sail for four-and-twenty hours more, and to see if anything came of it.

  Soon after night-fall, something did come of it. The look-out forward hailed the quarter-deck with the dreadful cry, ‘Breakers ahead!’ In less than a minute more, everybody heard the crash of the broken water. The Fortuna was put about, and came round slowly in the light wind. Thanks to the timely alarm and the fine weather, the

  safety of the vessel was easily provided for. They kept her under short sail; and they waited for the morning.

  The dawn showed them in the distance a glorious green island, not marked in the ship’s charts—an island girt about by a coral-reef, and having in its midst a high-peaked mountain which looked, through the telescope, like a mountain of volcanic origin. Mr Duncalf, taking his morning draught of rum and water, shook his groggy old head, and said (and swore): ‘My lads, I don’t like the look of that island.’ The Captain was of a different opinion. He had one of the ship’s boats put into the water; he armed himself and four of his crew who accompanied him; and away he went in the morning sunlight to visit the island.

  Skirting round the coral-reef, they found a natural breach, which proved to be broad enough and deep enough not only for the passage of the boat, but of the ship herself if needful. Crossing the broad inner belt of smooth water, they approached the golden sands of the island, strewed with magnificent shells, and crowded by the dusky islanders—men, women, and children, all waiting in breathless astonishment to see the strangers land.

  The Captain kept the boat off, and examined the islanders carefully. The innocent simple people danced, and sang, and ran into the water, imploring their wonderful white visitors by gestures to come on shore. Not a creature among them carried arms of any sort; a hospitable curi
osity animated the entire population. The men cried out, in their smooth musical language, ‘Come and eat!’ and the plump black-eyed women, all laughing together, added their own invitation, ‘Come and be kissed!’ Was it in mortals to resist such temptations as these? The Captain led the way on shore, and the women surrounded him in an instant, and screamed for joy at the glorious spectacle of his whiskers, his complexion, and his gloves. So, the mariners from the far north were welcomed to the newly-discovered island.


  The morning wore on. Mr Duncalf, in charge of the ship, cursing the island over his rum and water, as a ‘beastly green strip of a place, not laid down in any Christian chart,’ was kept waiting four mortal hours before the Captain returned to his command, and reported himself to his officers as follows:

  He had found his knowledge of the Polynesian dialects sufficient to make himself in some degree understood by the natives of the new island. Under the guidance of the chief he had made a first journey of exploration, and had seen for himself that the place was a marvel of natural beauty and fertility. The one barren spot in it was the peak of the volcanic mountain, composed of crumbling rock; originally no doubt lava and ashes, which had cooled and consolidated with the lapse of time. So far as he could see, the crater at the top was now an extinct crater. But, if he had understood rightly, the chief had spoken of earthquakes and eruptions at certain bygone periods, some of which lay within his own earliest recollections of the place.

  Adverting next to considerations of practical utility, the Captain announced that he had seen sandal-wood enough on the island to load a dozen ships, and that the natives were willing to part with it for a few toys and trinkets generally distributed amongst them. To the mate’s disgust, the Fortuna was taken inside the reef that day, and was anchored before sunset in a natural harbour. Twelve hours of recreation, beginning with the next

  morning, were granted to the men, under the wise restrictions in such cases established by the Captain. That interval over, the work of cutting the precious wood and loading the ship was to be unremittingly pursued.

  Mr Duncalf had the first watch after the Fortuna had been made snug. He took the boatswain aside (an ancient sea-dog like himself), and he said in a gruff whisper: ‘My lad, this here ain’t the island laid down in our sailing orders. See if mischief don’t come of disobeying orders before we are many days older.’

  Nothing in the shape of mischief happened that night. But at sunrise the next morning a suspicious circumstance occurred; and Mr Duncalf whispered to the boatswain: ‘What did I tell you?’ The Captain and the chief of the islanders held a private conference in the cabin; and the Captain, after first forbidding any communication with the shore until his return, suddenly left the ship, alone with the chief, in the chief’s own canoe.

  What did this strange disappearance mean? The Captain himself, when he took his seat in the canoe, would have been puzzled to answer that question. He asked, in the nearest approach that his knowledge could make to the language used in the island, whether he would be a long time or a short time absent from his ship.

  The chief answered mysteriously (as the Captain understood him) in these words:

  ‘Long time or short time, your life depends on it, and the lives of your men.

  Paddling his light little boat in silence over the smooth water inside the reef, the chief took his visitor ashore at a part of the island which was quite new to the Captain. The two crossed a ravine, and ascended an eminence beyond. There the chief stopped, and silently pointed out to sea.

  The Captain looked in the direction indicated to him, and discovered a second and a smaller island, lying away to the south-west. Taking out his telescope from the case by which it was slung at his back, he narrowly examined the place. Two of the native canoes were lying off the shore of the new island; and the men in them appeared to be all kneeling or crouching in curiously chosen attitudes. Shifting the range of his glass, he next beheld a white-robed figure, tall and solitary—the one inhabitant of the island whom he could discover. The man was standing on the highest point of a rocky cape. A fire was burning at his feet. Now he lifted his arms solemnly to the sky; now he dropped some invisible fuel into the fire, which made a blue smoke; and now he cast other invisible objects into the canoes floating beneath him, which the islanders reverently received with bodies that crouched in abject submission. Lowering his telescope, the Captain looked round at the chief for an explanation. The chief gave the explanation readily. His language was interpreted by the English stranger in these terms:

  ‘Wonderful white man! the island you see yonder is a Holy Island. As such it is Taboo—an island sanctified and set apart. The honourable person whom you notice on the rock is an all-powerful favourite of the gods. He is by vocation a Sorcerer, and by rank a Priest. You now see him casting charms and blessings into the canoes of our fishermen, who kneel to him for fine weather and great plenty of fish. If any profane person, native or stranger, presumes to set foot On that island, my otherwise peaceful subjects will (in the performance of a religious duty) put that person to death. Mention this to your men. They will be fed by my male people, and fondled by my female people, so long as they keep clear of the Holy Isle. As they value their lives, let them respect this prohibition. Is it understood between us? Wonderful white man! my canoe is waiting for you. Let us go back.’

  Understanding enough of the chief’s language (illustrated by his gestures) to receive in the right spirit the communication thus addressed to him, the Captain repeated the warning to the ship’s company in the plainest possible English. The officers and men then took their holiday on shore, with the exception of Mr Duncalf, who positively refused to leave the ship. For twelve delightful hours they were fed by the male people, and fondled by the female people, and then they were mercilessly torn from the flesh-pots and the arms of their new friends, and set to work on the sandal-wood in good earnest.

  Mr Duncalf superintended the loading, and waited for the mischief that was to come of disobeying the owners’ orders with a confidence worthy of a better cause.


  Strangely enough, chance once more declared itself in favour of the mate’s point of view.

  The mischief did actually come; and the chosen instrument of it was a handsome young islander, who was one of the sons of the chief.

  The Captain had taken a fancy to the sweet-tempered intelligent lad. Pursuing his studies in the dialect of the island, at leisure hours, he had made the chief’s son his tutor, and had instructed the youth in English by way of return. More than a month had passed in this intercourse, and the ship’s lading was being rapidly completed—when, in an evil hour, the talk between the two turned on the subject of the Holy Island.

  ‘Does nobody live on the island but the Priest?’ the Captain asked. The chief’s son looked round him suspiciously. ‘Promise me you won’t tell anybody!’ he began very earnestly.

  The Captain gave his promise.

  ‘There is one other person on the island,’ the lad whispered; ‘a person to feast your eyes upon, if you could only see her! She is the Priest’s daughter. Removed to the island in her infancy, she has never left it since. In that sacred solitude she has only looked on two human beings—her father and her mother. I once saw her from my canoe, taking care not to attract her notice, or to approach too near the holy soil. Oh, so young, dear master, and, oh, so beautiful!’ The chief’s son completed the description by kissing his own hands as an expression of rapture.

  The Captain’s fine blue eyes sparkled. He asked no more questions; but, later on that day, he took his telescope with him, and paid a secret visit to the eminence which overlooked the Holy Island. The next day, and the next, he privately returned to the same place. On the fourth day, fatal Destiny favoured him. He discovered the itymph of the island.

  Standing alone upon the cape on which he had already seen her father, she was feeding some tame birds which looked like turtle-doves. The glass showed the Captain her white robe,
fluttering in the sea-breeze; her long black hair falling to her feet; her slim and supple young figure; her simple grace of attitude, as she turned this way and that, attending to the wants of her birds. Before her was the blue ocean; behind her rose the lustrous green of the island forest. He looked and looked until his eyes and arms ached.

  When she disappeared among the trees, followed by her favourite birds, the Captain shut up his telescope with a sigh, and said to himself: ‘I have seen an angel!’

  From that hour he became an altered man; he was languid, silent, interested in nothing.

  General opinion, on board his ship, decided that he was going to be taken ill.

  A week more elapsed, and the officers and crew began to talk of the voyage to their market in China. The Captain refused to fix a day for sailing. He even took offence at being asked to decide. Instead of sleeping in his cabin, he went ashore for the night.

  Not many hours afterwards (just before daybreak), Mr Duncalf, snoring in his cabin on deck, was aroused by a hand laid on his shoulder. The swinging lamp, still alight, showed him the dusky face of the chief’s son, convulsed with terror. By wild signs, by disconnected words in the little English which he had learnt, the lad tried to make the mate understand him. Dense Mr Duncalf, understanding nothing, hailed the second officer, on the opposite side of the deck. The second officer was young and intelligent; he rightly interpreted the terrible news that had come to the ship.

  The Captain had broken his own rules. Watching his opportunity, under cover of the night, he had taken a canoe, and had secretly crossed the channel to the Holy Island. No one had been near him at the time, but the chief’s son., The lad had vainly tried to induce him to abandon his desperate enterprise, and had vainly waited on the shore in the hope of hearing the sound of the paddle announcing his return. Beyond all reasonable doubt, the infatuated man had set foot on the shores of the tabooed island.