It was five o'clock in the afternoon. There can be no doubt whatever asto that. Old Agnes may say what she pleases--she has a habit of doingso--but I know for certain
because I looked at my watch not ten minutesbefore it happened
that it was exactly five o'clock in the afternoonwhen I received a most singular and every way remarkable visit--a visitwhich has left an indelible impression on my memory, as well it might;for, independent of its singularity and unexpectedness, one of itsresults was the series of strange adventures which are faithfullydetailed in this volume.
It happened thus:--
I was seated in an armchair in my private study in a small town on thewest coast of England. It was a splendid afternoon, and it was exactlyfive o'clock. Mark that. Not that there is anything singular about themere fact, neither is it in any way mixed up with the thread of thistale; but old Agnes is very obstinate--singularly positive--and I have aspecial desire that she should see it in print, that I have not given inon that point. Yes, it was five precisely, and a beautiful evening. Iwas ruminating, as I frequently do, on the pleasant memories of bygonedays, especially the happy days that I spent long ago among the coralislands of the Pacific, when a tap at the door aroused me.
"A veesiter, sir," said old Agnes
, "an' he'll no gie hisname."
Old Agnes, I may remark, is a Scotchwoman.
"Show him in," said I.
"Maybe he's a pickpocket," suggested Agnes.
"I'll take my chance of that."
"Ay! that's like 'ee. Cares for naethin'. Losh, man, what if he cutsyer throat?"
"I'll take my chance of that too; only _do_ show him in, my good woman,"said I, with a gesture of impatience that caused the excellent
old creature to depart, grumbling.
In another moment a quick step was heard on the stair, and a strangerburst into the room, shut the door in my landlady's face as she followedhim, and locked it.
I was naturally surprised, though not alarmed, by the abrupt andeccentric conduct of my visitor, who did not condescend to take off hishat, but stood with his arms folded on his breast, gazing at me andbreathing hard.
"You are agitated, sir; pray be seated," said I, pointing to a chair.
The stranger, who was a little man and evidently a gentleman, made noreply, but, seizing a chair, placed it exactly before me, sat down on itas he would have seated himself on a horse, rested his arms on the back,and stared me in the face.
"You are disposed to be facetious," said I, smiling
for I never takeoffence without excessively good reason
"Not at all, by no means," said he, taking off his hat and throwing itrecklessly on the floor. "You are Mr Rover, I presume?"
"The same, sir, at your service."
"Are you? oh, that's yet to be seen! Pray, is your Christian nameRalph?"
"It is," said I, in some surprise at the coolness of my visitor.
"Ah! just so. Christian name Ralph, t'other name Rover--Ralph Rover.Very good. Age twenty-two yesterday, eh?"
"My birthday _was_ yesterday, and my age _is_ twenty-two. You appear toknow more of my private history than I have the pleasure of knowing ofyours. Pray, sir, may I--but, bless me! are you unwell?"
I asked this in some alarm, because the little man was rolling about inhis seat, holding his sides, and growing very red in the face.
"Oh no! not at all; perfectly well--never was better in my life," hesaid, becoming all at once preternaturally grave. "You were once in thePacific--lived on a coral island--"
"Oh, don't trouble yourself to answer. Just shut up for a minute ortwo. You were rather a soft green youth then, and you don't seem to bemuch harder or less verdant now."
"Sir!" I exclaimed, getting angry.
"Just so," continued he, "and you knew a young rascal there--"
"I know a rascal _here_," I exclaimed, starting up, "whom I'll kick--"
"What!" cried the little stranger, also starting up and capsizing thechair; "Ralph Rover, has time and sunburning and war so changed myvisage that you cannot recognise Peterkin?"
I almost gasped for breath.
"Peterkin--Peterkin Gay!" I exclaimed.
I am not prone to indulge in effeminate demonstration, but I am notashamed to confess that when I gazed on the weather-beaten though ruddycountenance of my old companion, and observed the eager glance of hisbright blue eyes, I was quite overcome, and rushed violently into hisarms. I may also add that until that day I had had no idea ofPeterkin's physical strength; for during the next five minutes hetwisted me about and spun me round and round my own room until my brainbegan to reel, and I was fain to cry him mercy.
"So, you're all right--the same jolly, young old wiseacre in whiskersand long coat," cried Peterkin. "Come now, Ralph, sit down if you can.I mean to stay with you all evening, and all night, and all to-morrow,and all next day, so we'll have lots of time to fight our battles o'eragain. Meanwhile compose yourself, and I'll tell you what I've comeabout. Of course, my first and chief reason was to see your face, oldboy; but I have another reason too--a very peculiar reason. I've aproposal to make and a plan to unfold, both of 'em stunners; they'llshut you up and screw you down, and altogether flabbergast you when youhear 'em, so sit down and keep quiet--do."
I sat down accordingly, and tried to compose myself; but, to say truth,I was so much overjoyed and excited by the sight of my old friend andcompanion that I had some difficulty at first in fixing my attention onwhat he said, the more especially that he spoke with extreme volubility,and interrupted his discourse very frequently, in order to ask questionsor to explain.
"Now, old fellow," he began, "here goes, and mind you don't interruptme. Well, I mean to go, and I mean you to go with me, to--but, Iforgot, perhaps you won't be able to go. What are you?"
"What am I?"
"Ay, your profession, your calling; lawyer, M.D., scrivener--which?"
"I am a naturalist."
"Ralph," said Peterkin slowly, "have you been long troubled with thatcomplaint?"
"Yes," I replied, laughing; "I have suffered from it from my earliestinfancy, more or less."
"I thought so," rejoined my companion, shaking his head gravely. "Ifancied that I observed the development of that disease when we livedtogether on the coral island. It don't bring you in many thousands ayear, does it?"
"No," said I, "it does not. I am only an amateur, having a sufficiencyof this world's goods to live on without working for my bread. Butalthough my dear father at his death left me a small fortune, whichyields me three hundred a year, I do not feel entitled to lead the lifeof an idler in this busy world, where so many are obliged to toil nightand day for the bare necessaries of life. I have therefore taken to myfavourite studies as a sort of business, and flatter myself that I havemade one or two not unimportant discoveries, and added a few mites tothe sum of human knowledge. A good deal of my time is spent inscientific roving expeditions throughout the country, and incontributing papers to several magazines."
While I was thus speaking I observed that Peterkin's face was undergoingthe most remarkable series of changes of expression, which, as Iconcluded, merged into a smile of beaming delight, as he said,--"Ralph,you're a trump!"
"Possibly," said I, "you are right; but, setting that question aside forthe present, let me remind you that you have not yet told me where youmean to go to."
"I mean," said Peterkin slowly, placing both hands on his knees andlooking me steadily in the face--"I mean to go a-hunting in--but Iforgot. You don't know that I'm a hunter, a somewhat famous hunter?"
"Of course I don't. You are so full of your plans and proposals thatyou have not yet told me where you have been or what doing these sixyears. And you ye never written to me once all that time, shabbyfellow. I thought you were dead."
"Did you go into mourning for me, Ralph?"
"No, of course not."
"A pretty fellow you are to find fault. You thought that I, your oldestand best friend, was dead, and you did not go into mourning. How couldI write to you when you parted from me without giving me your address?It was a mere chance my finding you out even now. I was taking a quietcup of coffee in the commercial room of a hotel not far distant, when Ioverheard a stranger speaking of his friend `Ralph Rover, thephilosopher,' so I plunged at him promiscuously, and made him give meyour address. But I've corresponded with Jack ever since we parted onthe pier at Dover."
"What! Jack--Jack Martin?" I exclaimed, as a warm gush of feelingfilled my heart at the sound of his well-remembered name. "Is Jackalive?"
"Alive! I should think so. If possible, he's more alive than ever; forI should suppose he must be full-grown now, which he was not when welast met. He and I have corresponded regularly. He lives in the northof England, and by good luck happens to be just now within thirty milesof this town. You don't mean to say, Ralph, that you have never met!"
"Never. The very same mistake that happened with you occurred betweenhim and me. We parted vowing to correspond as long as we should live,and three hours after I remembered that we had neglected to exchange ouraddresses, so that we could not correspond. I have often, often madeinquiries both for you and him, but have always failed. I never heardof Jack from the time we parted at Dover till to-day."
"Then no doubt you thought us both dead, and yet you did not go intomourning for either of us! O Ralph, Ralph, I had entertained too goodan opinion of you."
"But tell me about Jack," said I, impatient to hear more concerning mydear old comrade.
"Not just now, my boy; more of him in a few minutes. First let usreturn to the point. What was it? Oh! a--about my being a celebratedhunter. A very Nimrod--at least a miniature copy. Well, Ralph, sincewe last met I have been all over the world, right round and round it.I'm a lieutenant in the navy now--at least I was a week ago. I've beenfighting with the Kaffirs and the Chinamen, and been punishing therascally sepoys in India, and been hunting elephants in Ceylon andtiger-shooting in the jungles, and harpooning whales in the polar seas,and shooting lions at the Cape; oh, you've no notion where all I'vebeen. It's a perfect marvel I've turned up here alive. But there's onebeast I've not yet seen, and I'm resolved to see him and shoot himtoo--"
"But," said I, interrupting, "what mean you by saying that you were alieutenant in the navy a week ago?"
"I mean that I've given it up. I'm tired of the sea. I only value itas a means of getting from one country to another. The land, the landfor me! You must know that an old uncle, a rich old uncle of mine, whomI never saw, died lately and left me his whole fortune. Of course hedied in India. All old uncles who die suddenly and leave unexpectedfortunes to unsuspecting nephews are old Indian uncles, and mine was noexception to the general rule. So I'm independent, like you, Ralph,only I've got three or four thousand a year instead of hundreds, Ibelieve; but I'm not sure and don't care--and I'm determined now to goon a long hunting expedition. What think ye of all that, my boy?"
"In truth," said I, "it would puzzle me to say what I think, I am sofilled with surprise by all you tell me. But you forget that you havenot yet told me to which part of the world you mean to go, and what sortof beast it is you are so determined to see and shoot if you can."
"If I can!" echoed Peterkin, with a contemptuous curl of the lip. "Didnot I tell you that I was a _celebrated_ hunter? Without meaning toboast, I may tell you that there is no peradventure in my shooting. IfI only get there and see the brute within long range, I'll--ha! won'tI!"
"Get _where_, and see _what_?"
"Get to Africa and see the gorilla!" cried Peterkin, while a glow ofenthusiasm lighted up his eyes. "You've heard of the gorilla, Ralph, ofcourse--the great ape--the enormous puggy--the huge baboon--the manmonkey, that we've been hearing so much of for some years back, and thatthe niggers on the African coast used to dilate about till they causedthe very hair of my head to stand upon end? I'm determined to shoot agorilla, or prove him to be a myth. And I mean you to come and help me,Ralph; he's quite in your way. A bit of natural history, I suppose,although he seems by all accounts to be a very unnatural monster. AndJack shall go too--I'm resolved on that; and we three shall roam thewild woods again, as we did in days of yore, and--"
"Hold, Peterkin," said I, interrupting. "How do you know that Jack willgo?"
"How do I know? Intuitively, of course. I shall write to him to-night;the post does not leave till ten. He'll get it to-morrow at breakfast,and will catch the forenoon coach, which will bring him down here by twoo'clock, and then we'll begin our preparations at once, and talk thematter over at dinner. So you see it's all cut and dry. Give me asheet of paper and I'll write at once. Ah! here's a bit; now a pen.Bless me, Ralph, haven't you got a quill? Who ever heard of aphilosophical naturalist writing with steel. Now, then, heregoes:--`B'luv'd Jack,'--will that do to begin with, eh? I'm afraid it'stoo affectionate; he'll think it's from a lady friend. But it can't bealtered,--`Here I am, and here's Ralph--Ralph Rover!!!!!! think ofthat,'
I say, Ralph, I've put six marks of admiration there
; `I'vefound him out. Do come to see us. Excruciatingly important business.Ever thine--Peterkin Gay.' Will that bring him, d'ye think?"
"I think it will," said I, laughing.
"Then off with it, Ralph," cried my volatile friend, jumping up andlooking hastily round for the bell-rope. Not being able to find it, mybell-pull being an unobtrusive knob and not a rope, he rushed to thedoor, unlocked it, darted out, and uttered a tremendous roar, which wasfollowed by a clatter and a scream from old Agnes, whom he had upset andtumbled over.
It was curious to note the sudden change that took place in Peterkin'sface, voice, and manner, as he lifted the poor old woman, who was verythin and light, in his arms, and carrying her into the room, placed herin my easy-chair. Real anxiety was depicted in his countenance, and heset her down with a degree of care and tenderness that quite amazed me.I was myself very much alarmed at first.
"My poor dear old _woman_," said Peterkin, supporting my landlady'shead; "my stupid haste I fear you are hurt."
"Hech! it's nae hurt--it's deed I am, fair deed; killed be awhaumlskamerin' young blagyird. Oh, ma puir heed!"
The manner and tone in which this was said convinced me that old Agneswas more frightened than injured. In a few minutes the soothing tonesand kind manner of my friend had such an effect upon her that shedeclared she was better, and believed after all that she was only a "weebit frichtened." Nay, so completely was she conciliated, that sheinsisted on conveying the note to the post-office, despite Peterkin'sassurance that he would not hear of it. Finally she hobbled out of theroom with the letter in her hand.
It is interesting to note how that, in most of the affairs of humanity,things turn out very different, often totally different, from what wehad expected or imagined. During the remainder of that evening Peterkinand I talked frequently and much of our old friend Jack Martin. Werecalled his manly yet youthful countenance, his bold, lion-likecourage, his broad shoulders and winning gentle smile, and although weknew that six years must have made an immense difference in his personalappearance--for he was not much more than eighteen when we last parted--we could not think of him except as a hearty, strapping sailor-boy. Weplanned, too, how we would meet him at the coach; how we would standaside in the crowd until he began to look about for us in surprise, andthen one of us would step forward and ask if he wished to be directed toany particular part of the town, and so lead him on and talk to him as astranger for some time before revealing who we were. And much more tothe same effect. But when next day came our plans and our conceptionswere utterly upset.
A little before two we sauntered down to the coach-office, and waitedimpatiently for nearly twenty minutes. Of course the coach was late; italways is on such occasions.
"Suppose he does not come," said I.
"What a fellow you are," cried Peterkin, "to make uncomfortablesuppositions! Let us rather suppose that he does come."
"Oh, then, it would be all right; but if he does not come, what then?"
"Why, then, it would be all wrong, and we should have to return home andeat our dinner in the sulks, that's all."
As my companion spoke we observed the coach come sweeping round the turnof the road about half a mile distant. In a few seconds it dashed intothe town at full gallop, and finally drew up abruptly opposite the doorof the inn, where were assembled the usual group of hostlers and waitersand people who expected friends by the coach.
"He's not there," whispered Peterkin, in deep disappointment--"at leasthe's not on the outside, and Jack would never travel inside of a coacheven in bad weather, much less in fine. That's not him on the back-seatbeside the fat old woman with the blue bundle, surely! It's very likehim, but too young, much too young. There's a great giant of a man onthe box-seat with a beard like a grenadier's shako, and a stout oldgentleman behind him with gold spectacles. That's all, except two boysfarther aft, and three ladies in the cabin. Oh, _what_ a bore!"
Although deeply disappointed at the non-arrival of Jack, I could withdifficulty refrain from smiling at the rueful and woe-begone countenanceof my poor companion. It was evident that he could not beardisappointment with equanimity, and I was on the point of offering someconsolatory remarks, when my attention was attracted by the little oldwoman with the blue bundle, who went up to the gigantic man with theblack beard, and in the gentlest possible tone of voice asked if hecould direct her to the white house.
"No, madam," replied the big man hastily; "I'm a stranger here."
The little old woman was startled by his abrupt answer. "Deary me, sir,no offence, I hope."
She then turned to Peterkin and put the same question, possibly under avague sort of impression that if a gigantic frame betokened a gruffnature, diminutive stature must necessarily imply extreme amiability.If so, she must have been much surprised as well as disappointed, forPeterkin, rendered irascible by disappointment, turned short round andsaid sharply, "Why, madam, how can _I_ tell you where the white houseis, unless you say which white house you want? Half the houses of thetown are white--at least they're _dirty_ white," he added bitterly, ashe turned away.
"I think I can direct you, ma'am," said I, stepping quickly up with abland smile, in order to counteract, if possible, my companion'srudeness.
"Thank you, sir, kindly," said the little old woman; "I'm glad to find_some_ little civility in the town."
"Come with me, ma'am; I am going past the white house, and will show youthe way."
"And pray, sir," said the big stranger, stepping up to me as I was aboutto move away, "can you recommend me to a good hotel?"
I replied that I could; that there was one in the immediate vicinity ofthe white house, and that if he would accompany me I would show him theway. All this I did purposely in a very affable and obliging tone andmanner; for I hold that example is infinitely better than precept, andalways endeavour, if possible, to overcome evil with good. I offered myarm to the old woman, who thanked me and took it.
"What!" whispered Peterkin, "you don't mean me to take this great uglygorilla in tow?"
"Of course," replied I, laughing, as I led the way.
Immediately I entered into conversation with my companion, and I heard"the gorilla" attempt to do so with Peterkin; but from the few sharpcross replies that reached my ear, I became aware that he wasunsuccessful. In the course of a few minutes, however, he appeared tohave overcome his companion's ill-humour, for I overheard their voicesgrowing louder and more animated as they walked behind me.
Suddenly I heard a shout, and turning hastily round, observed Peterkinstruggling in the arms of the gorilla! Amazed beyond measure at thesight, and firmly persuaded that a cowardly assault had been made uponmy friend, I seized the old woman's umbrella, as the only availableweapon, and flew to the rescue.
"Jack, my boy! can it be possible?" gasped Peterkin.
"I believe it is," replied Jack, laughing.--"Ralph, my dear old fellow,how are you?"
I stood petrified. I believed that I was in a dream.
I know not what occurred during the next five minutes. All I couldremember with anything like distinctness was a succession of violentscreams from the little old woman, who fled shouting thieves and murderat the full pitch of her voice. We never saw that old woman again, butI made a point of returning her umbrella to the "white house."
Gradually we became collected and sane.
"Why, Jack, how did you find us out?" cried Peterkin, as we all hurriedon to my lodgings, totally forgetful of the little old woman, whom, as Ihave said, we never saw again, but who, I sincerely trust, arrived atthe white house in safety.
"Find you out! I knew you the moment I set eyes on you. Ralph puzzledme for a second, he has grown so much stouter; but I should know yournose, Peterkin, at a mile off."
"Well, Jack, I did not know you," retorted Peterkin, "but I'm safe neveragain to forget you. Such a great hairy Cossack as you have become!Why, what do you mean by it?"
"I couldn't help it, please," pleaded Jack; "I grew in spite of myself;but I think I've stopped now."
"It's time," remarked Peterkin.
Jack had indeed grown to a size that men seldom attain to without losingin grace infinitely more than they gain in bulk, but he had retained allthe elegance of form and sturdy vigour of action that had characterisedhim as a boy. He was fully six feet two inches in his stockings, but soperfect were his proportions that his great height did not becomeapparent until you came close up to him. Full half of his handsomemanly face was hid by a bushy black beard and moustache, and his curlyhair had been allowed to grow luxuriantly, so that his whole aspect wasmore like to the descriptions we have of one of the old ScandinavianVikings than a gentleman of the present time. In whatever company hechanced to be he towered high above every one else, and I am satisfiedthat, had he walked down Whitechapel, the Horse Guards would haveappeared small beside him, for he possessed not only great length oflimb but immense breadth of chest and shoulders.
During our walk to my lodgings Peterkin hurriedly stated his "plan andproposal," which caused Jack to laugh very much at first, but in a fewminutes he became grave, and said slowly, "That will just suit--it willdo exactly."
"What will do exactly? Do be more explicit, man," said Peterkin, withsome impatience.
"I'll go with you, my boy."
"Will you?" cried Peterkin, seizing his hand and shaking it violently;"I knew you would. I said it; didn't I, Ralph? And now we shall besure of a gorilla, if there's one in Africa, for I'll use you as astalking-horse."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Jack.
"Yes; I'll put a bear-skin or some sort of fur on your shoulders, andtie a lady's boa to you for a tail, and send you into the woods. Thegorillas will be sure to mistake you for a relative until you get quiteclose; then you'll take one pace to the left with the left foot
as thevolunteers say
, I'll take one to the front with the right--at fiftyyards, ready--present--bang, and down goes the huge puggy with a bulletright between its two eyes! There. And Ralph's agreed to go too."
"O Peterkin, I've done nothing of the sort. You _proposed_ it."
"Well, and isn't that the same thing? I wonder, Ralph that you can giveway to such mean-spirited prevarication. What? `It's notprevarication!' Don't say that now; you know it is. Ah! you may laugh,my boy, but you have promised to go with me and Jack to Africa, and goyou shall."
And so, reader, it was ultimately settled, and in the course of twoweeks more we three were on our way to the land of the slave, the blacksavage, and the gorilla.