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Philosopher Jack

Philosopher Jack

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


If the entire circuit of a friend's conversation were comprised in the words "Don't" and "Do,"--it might perhaps be taken for granted that his advice was not of much value...
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  If the entire circuit of a friend's conversation were comprised in thewords "Don't" and "Do,"--it might perhaps be taken for granted that hisadvice was not of much value; nevertheless, it is a fact thatPhilosopher Jack's most intimate and valuable--if not valued--friendnever said anything to him beyond these two words. Nor did he evercondescend to reason. He listened, however, with unwearied patience toreasoning, but when Jack had finished reasoning and had stated hisproposed course of action, he merely said to him, "Don't," or "Do."

  "For what end was I created?" said the philosopher, gloomily.

  Wise and momentous question when seriously put, but foolish remark, ifnot worse, when flung out in bitterness of soul!

  Jack, whose other name was Edwin, and his age nineteen, was a student.Being of an argumentative turn of mind, his college companions haddubbed him Philosopher. Tall, strong, active, kindly, hilarious,earnest, reckless, and impulsive, he was a strange compound, with ahandsome face, a brown fluff on either cheek, and a moustache like alady's eyebrow. Moreover, he was a general favourite, yet this favouredyouth, sitting at his table in his own room, sternly repeated thequestion--in varied form and with increased bitterness--"Why was I bornat all?"

  Deep wrinkles of perplexity sat on his youthful brow. Evidently hecould not answer his own question, though in early life his father hadcarefully taught him the "Shorter Catechism with proofs," while his goodold mother had enforced and exemplified the same. His taciturn friendwas equally unable, or unwilling, to give a reply.

  After prolonged meditation, Jack relieved his breast of a deep sigh andre-read a letter which lay open on his desk. Having read it a thirdtime with knitted brows, he rose, went to the window, and gazedpathetically on the cat's parade, as he styled his prospect of slatesand chimney cans.

  "So," said he at last, "my dreams are over; prospects gone; hopescollapsed--all vanished like the baseless fabric of a vision."

  He turned from the cat's parade, on which the shades of evening weredescending, to the less romantic contemplation of his empty fire-grate.

  "Now," said he, re-seating himself at his table and stretching his longlegs under it, "the question is, What am I to do? shall I kick at fate,throw care, like physic, to the dogs, cut the whole concern, and go tosea?"

  "Don't," said his taciturn friend, speaking distinctly for the firsttime.

  "Or," continued Jack, "shall I meekly bow to circumstances, and strugglewith my difficulties as best I may?"

  "Do," replied his friend, whose name, by the way, was Conscience.

  For a long time the student sat gazing at the open letter in silence.It was from his father, and ran thus:--

  "Dear Teddie,--It's a long time now that I've been thinkin' to writeyou, and couldn't a-bear to give you such a heavy disappointment butcan't putt it off no longer, and, as your mother, poor soul, says,it's the Lord's will and can't be helped--which, of course, itshouldn't be helped if that's true--but--well, howsomever, it's of nouse beatin' about the bush no longer. The seasons have been bad forsome years past, and it's all I've been able to do to make the twoends meet, with your mother slavin' like a nigger patchin' up thechild'n's old rags till they're like Joseph's coat after the wildbeast had done its worst on it--though we _are_ given to understandthat the only wild beasts as had to do with that coat was Joseph's ownbrothers. Almost since ever I left the North of England--a smallboy--and began to herd cattle on the Border hills, I've had a strangewish to be a learned man, and ever since I took to small farmin', andperceived that such was not to be my lot in life, I've had a powerfuldesire to see my eldest son--that's you, dear boy--trained inscientific pursoots, all the more that you seemed to have a naturalthirst that way yourself. Your mother, good soul, in her own broadtongue--which I've picked up somethin' of myself through livin' twentyyear with her--was used to say she `wad raither see her laddie trainedin ways o' wisdom than o' book-learnin',' which I'm agreed to myself,though it seems to me the two are more or less mixed up. Howsomever,it's all up now, my boy; you'll have to fight your own battle and payyour own way, for I've not got one shillin' to rub on another, exceptwhat'll pay the rent; and, what with the grey mare breakin' her legan' the turnips failin', the look-out ahead is darkish at the best."

  The letter finished with some good advice and a blessing.

  To be left thus without resources, just when the golden gates ofknowledge were opening, and a few dazzling gleams of the glory hadpierced his soul, was a crushing blow to the poor student. If he hadbeen a true philosopher, he would have sought counsel on his knees, buthis philosophy was limited; he only took counsel with himself and theimmediate results were disastrous.

  "Yes," said he, with an impulsive gush, "I'll go to sea."

  "Don't," said his quiet friend.

  But, regardless of this advice, Edwin Jack smote the table with hisclenched fist so violently that his pen leapt out of its ink-bottle andwrote its own signature on one of his books. He rose in haste and rangthe bell.

  "Mrs Niven," he said to his landlady, "let me know how much I owe you.I'm about to leave town--and--and won't return."

  "Ech! Maister Jack; what for?" exclaimed the astonished landlady.

  "Because I'm a beggar," replied the youth, with a bitter smile, "and Imean to go to sea."

  "Hoots! Maister Jack, ye're jokin'."

  "Indeed I am very far from joking, Mrs Niven; I have no money, and nosource of income. As I don't suppose you would give me board andlodging for nothing, I mean to leave."

  "Toots! ye're haverin'," persisted Mrs Niven, who was wont to treat her"young men" with motherly familiarity. "Tak' time to think o't, an'ye'll be in anither mind the morn's mornin'. Nae doot ye're--"

  "Now, my good woman," interrupted Jack, firmly but kindly, "don't botherme with objections or advice, but do what I bid you--there's a goodsoul; be off."

  Mrs Niven saw that she had no chance of impressing her lodger in hispresent mood; she therefore retired, while Jack put on a roughpilot-cloth coat and round straw hat in which he was wont at times to goboating. Thus clad, he went off to the docks of the city in which hedwelt; the name of which city it is not important that the reader shouldknow.

  In a humble abode near the said docks a bulky sea-captain lay stretchedin his hammock, growling. The prevailing odours of the neighbourhoodwere tar, oil, fish, and marine-stores. The sea-captain's room partooklargely of the same odours, and was crowded with more than an averageshare of the stores. It was a particularly small room, with charts,telescopes, speaking-trumpets, log-lines, sextants, portraits of ships,sou'-westers, oil-cloth coats and leggings on the walls; model shipssuspended from the beams overhead; sea-boots, coils of rope, kegs, andhandspikes on the floor; and great shells, earthenware ornaments,pagodas, and Chinese idols on the mantel-piece. In one corner stood achild's crib. The hammock swung across the room like a heavy cloudabout to descend and overwhelm the whole. This simile was further borneout by the dense volumes of tobacco smoke in which the captain envelopedhimself, and through which his red visage loomed over the edge of thehammock like a lurid setting sun.

  For a few minutes the clouds continued to multiply and thicken. Nosound broke the calm that prevailed, save a stertorous breathing, withan occasional hitch in it. Suddenly there was a convulsion in theclouds, and one of the hitches developed into a tremendous cough. Therewas something almost awe-inspiring in the cough. The captain was a hugeand rugged man. His cough was a terrible compound of a choke, a gasp, arend, and a roar. Only lungs of sole-leather could have weathered it.Each paroxysm suggested the idea that the man's vitals were being tornasunder; but not content with that, the exasperated mariner made mattersworse by keeping up a continual growl of indignant remonstrance in athunderous undertone.

  "Hah! that _was_ a splitter. A few more hug--sh! ha! like that willburst the biler entirety. Polly--hallo!"

  The lurid sun appeared to listen for a moment, then opening its mouth itshouted, "Polly--ahoy!" as if it were hailing the maintop of aseventy-four.

  Immediately there was a slight movement in one corner of the room, andstraightway from out a mass of marine-stores there emerged a fairy! Atleast, the little girl, of twelve or thereabouts, who suddenly appeared,with rich brown tumbling hair, pretty blue eyes, faultless figure, andineffable sweetness in every lineament of her little face, might easilyhave passed for a fairy or an angel.

  "What! caught you napping?" growled the captain in the midst of aparoxysm.

  "Only a minute, father; I couldn't help it," replied Polly, with alittle laugh, as she ran to the fireplace and took up a saucepan thatsimmered there.

  "Here, look alive! shove along! hand it up! I'm chokin'!"

  The child held the saucepan as high as she could towards the hammock.The captain, reaching down one of his great arms, caught it and took asteaming draught. It seemed to relieve him greatly.

  "You're a trump for gruel, Polly," he growled, returning the saucepan."Now then, up with the pyramid, and give us a nor'-wester."

  The child returned the saucepan to the fireplace, and then activelyplaced a chair nearly underneath the hammock. Upon the chair she set astool, and on the top she perched herself. Thus she was enabled tograsp the lurid sun by two enormous whiskers, and, putting her lips out,gave it a charming "nor'-wester," which was returned with hyperboreanviolence. Immediately after, Polly ducked her head, and thus escapedbeing blown away, like a Hindoo mutineer from a cannon's mouth, as thecaptain went off in another fit.

  "Oh! father," said Polly, quite solemnly, as she descended and looked upfrom a comparatively safe distance, "isn't it awful?"

  "Yes, Poll, it's about the wust 'un I've had since I came fromBarbadoes; but the last panful has mollified it, I think, and yournor'-wester has Pollyfied it, so, turn into your bunk, old girl, an'take a nap. You've much need of it, poor thing."

  "No, father, if I get into my crib I'll sleep so heavy that you won't beable to wake me. I'll just lie down where I was before."

  "Well, well--among the rubbish if ye prefer it; no matter s'long as youhave a snooze," growled the captain as he turned over, while the fairydisappeared into the dark recess from which she had risen.

  Just then a tap was heard at the door. "Come in," roared the captain.A tall, broad-shouldered, nautical-looking man entered, took off hishat, and stood before the hammock, whence the captain gave him a stern,searching glance, and opened fire on him with his pipe.

  "Forgive me if I intrude, Captain Samson," said the stranger; "I knowyou, although you don't know me. You start to-morrow or next day, Iunderstand, for Melbourne?"

  "Wind and weather permittin'," growled the captain. "Well, what then?"

  "Have you completed your crew?" asked the stranger.

  "Nearly. What then?" replied the captain with a touch of ferocity, forhe felt sensations of an approaching paroxysm.

  "Will you engage _me_?" asked Philosopher Jack, for it was he.

  "In what capacity?" demanded the captain somewhat sarcastically.

  "As an ordinary seaman--or a boy if you will," replied Edwin, with asmile.

  "No," growled Samson, decisively, "I won't engage you; men with kidgloves and white hands don't suit me."

  From the mere force of habit the young student had pulled on his gloveson leaving his lodging, and had only removed that of the right hand onentering the captain's dwelling. He now inserted a finger at the wristof the left-hand glove, ripped it off, and flung it with its fellowunder the grate. Thereafter he gathered some ashes and soot from thefireplace, with which he put his hands on a footing with those of acoal-heaver.

  "Will you take me now, captain?" he said, returning to the hammock, andspreading out his hands.

  The captain gave vent to a short laugh, which brought on a tremendousfit, at the conclusion of which he gasped, "Yes, my lad, p'r'aps I will;but first I must know something about you."

  "Certainly," said the philosopher, and at once gave the captain a briefoutline of his circumstances.

  "Well, you know your own affairs best" said Captain Samson when he hadfinished; "I'm no judge of such a case, but as you're willin' to ship,I'm willin' to ship you. Come here before ten to-morrow. Good night.There, it's a-comin'--hash--k--!"

  In the midst of another furious paroxysm Edwin Jack retired.

  Not long after, the captain raised himself on one elbow, listenedintently for a few seconds, and, having satisfied himself that Polly wasasleep, slipped from his hammock--as only seamen know how--and proceededto dress with the utmost caution. He was evidently afraid of the littlesleeper among the rubbish. It was quite interesting to observe thequiet speed with which he thrust his great limbs into his amplegarments, gazing anxiously all the time at Polly's corner.

  Issuing from his own door with the step of an elephantine mouse, thecaptain went rapidly through several streets to the house of an intimatefriend, whom he found at supper with his wife and family.

  "Evenin', Bailie Trench; how are 'ee, Mrs T? how's everybody?" said thecaptain, in a hearty rasping voice, as he shook hands right and left,while one of his huge legs was taken possession of, and embraced, by thebailie's only daughter, a pretty little girl of six.

  "Why, Samson," exclaimed the bailie, after quiet had been restored, andhis friend had been thrust into a chair with little Susan on his knee,"I thought you were laid up with influenza--eh?"

  "So I was, bailie, an' so I am," replied the captain; "leastwise I'mstill on the sick-list, and was in my hammock till about half an hourago, but I'm gettin' round fast. The night air seems to do me a worldo' good--contrariwise to doctor's expectations."

  "Have some supper?" said Mrs Trench, who was a weakish lady with wateryeyes.

  "No supper, Mrs T, thank 'ee; the fact is, I've come on business. Ishould be on my beam-ends by rights. I'm absent without leave, an' haveonly a few minutes to spare. The passenger I spoke of has changed hismind and his berth is free, so I'm glad to be able to take your son Benafter all. But he'll have to get ready quick, for the _Lively Poll_sails the day after to-morrow or next day--all bein' well."

  The eyes of young Benjamin Trench sparkled. He was a tall, thin, ratherquiet lad of eighteen.

  "I can be ready to-night if you wish it, Captain Samson," he said, witha flush on his usually pale face.

  Beside Mrs Trench there sat a sturdy little boy. He was the bosomfriend of Ben--a bright ruddy fellow of fourteen, overflowing withanimal spirits, and with energy enough for three lads of his size. Thisyouth's countenance fell so visibly when Ben spoke of going away, thatMrs Trench could not help noticing it.

  "Why, what's the matter, Wilkins?" she asked.

  "Oh, nothing!" returned the boy, "only I don't like to hear Ben speak ofleaving us all and going to Australia. And I would give all the worldto go with him. Won't you take me as a cabin boy, Captain Samson?"

  "Sorry I can't, lad," said the captain, with a grin, "got a cabin boyalready."

  "Besides, your father would not let you," said Mrs Trench, "and itwould never do to go without his leave. Only misfortune could come ofthat."

  "Humph! it's very hard," pouted the boy. "I wanted him to get me intothe navy, and he wouldn't; and now I want him to get me into themerchant service, and he won't. But I'll go in spite of him."

  "No, you won't, Watty," said Ben, laying his hand on his friend'sshoulder.

  "Yes, Ben, I will," returned little Wilkins, with such an air ofdetermination that every one except Ben laughed.

  "Now, bailie," said the captain, rising, "I'm off. The truth is, Iwouldn't have come if it had not been important to let you know at onceto get your boy ready; but I had no one to send except Polly, and Iwouldn't send her out at night by herself for all the wealth of Indy.Moreover, _she_ wouldn't have let me out to-night for any considerationwhatever. She's very strict with me, is my little keeper. I wouldn'tfor the world she should wake and find me gone. So, good-night all."

  Ten minutes more, and the guilty man entered his dwelling on tiptoe. Inorder to get into his hammock with extreme caution he forsook hisancient method of a spring, and mounted on an empty cask. The cask wasnot equal to the emergency. He went through the head of it with ahideous crash! Spurning it from him, he had just time to plunge intohis place of repose and haul the clothes over him, when Polly emergedfrom her lair with wondering eyes.

  "What ever was that, father?"

  "Nothin', my dear, nothin' in partickler--only a cask I kicked over.Now, then, Poll, since you're keepin' me awake in this fashion, it'syour dooty to soothe me with an extra panful, and another nor'-wester--so, up wi' the pyramid; and after you've done it you must turn into yourcrib. I'll not want you again to-night; the cough's much better.There--thank 'ee. Pollyfy me now--that's right. Good-night."

  Oh, base mariner! little did you merit such a pleasant termination toyour evening's work; but you are not the only wicked man in this worldwho receives more than he deserves.

  Two days after the incidents just related a noble ship spread her canvasto a favouring breeze, and bowing farewell to her port of departure,commenced the long long voyage to the Antipodes.

  She was not a passenger ship, but a trader; nevertheless there were afew passengers on her quarter-deck, and among these towered the colossalfigure of Captain Samson. Beside him, holding his hand, stood afairy-like little creature with brown curls and pretty blue eyes. Notfar from her, leaning over the bulwarks, Benjamin Trench franticallywaved a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. The signal was responded to,with equal feeling, by the bailie, his wife, and little Susan. A goodnumber of people, young and old, assembled at the pier-head, among whommany waved handkerchiefs, and hands, and scarfs, and hats to the crew.

  Among the sailors who gazed wistfully towards the pier was one who madeno farewell signal, and received no parting wave. Philosopher Jack hadconcealed his intention of going to sea from all his college chums, anda bitter feeling of loneliness oppressed his heart as he thought of hisold father and mother, and the lowly cottage on the Border hills. Hehad not, indeed, acted in direct opposition to the wishes of hisparents, but he had disobeyed the well-known Scripture command to dothem "honour," for he had resolved on his course of action withoutconsulting them, or asking their advice. He felt that he had veryselfishly forsaken them in their old age; in the hour of their soredistress, and at a time when they stood woefully in need of his strongmuscles, buoyant spirit, and energetic brain. In short, Edwin Jackbegan to feel that he required all his philosophy, and something more,to enable him to face the future with the unflinching courage of a man.

  So the ship moved slowly on, revealing on her stern the "_Lively Poll_"in letters of burnished gold--past the pier-head, down the broad river,out upon the widening firth, beyond lighthouse, buoy, and beacon, untilat last the fresh Atlantic breezes filled her snowy sails.

  And ever as she rose and sank upon the rolling waves, their swish andthud fell strangely on the ear of one who lay deep down in the recessesof the hull, where--among barrels of pork, and casks of tar, and cans ofoil, and coils of rope, and other unsavoury stores--he consorted withrats and mice and an uneasy conscience, in thick darkness. This was a"stowaway." He was a sturdy, bright, ruddy little fellow of fourteen.Down in that unwholesome place, with a few ship-biscuits and a bottle ofwater to keep him alive, he would have looked like a doubled-upovergrown hedgehog if there had been light enough to reveal him.

  Thus, with its little world of hopes and fears, its cares and pleasures,and its brave, trembling, trusting, sorrowing, joyful, anxious, recklesshearts, the good ship passed from the shores of Britain, until her sailsquivered like a petrel's wings on the horizon, and then vanished intothe boundless bosom of the mighty sea.