Us and the Bottle Man/Chapter 3
THE envelope was a square, thinnish one, addressed in very small, black handwriting.
"It must be from The Bottle," Jerry said; "otherwise they would n't have thought you were a boy and put Christopher."
I had been thinking just the same thing while I was trying to open the envelope. It was one of the very tightly stuck kind that scrumples up when you try to rip it with your finger, and we had to slit it with a fruit-knife before we could get at the letter. There were sheets of thin paper all covered with writing, and when Jerry and Greg saw that, they both fell upon it so that none of us could read it at all. I persuaded them that the quickest thing to do would be to let me read it aloud, and as we'd finished breakfast anyway, we each took our last piece of toast in our hands and went out and sat on the bottom step of the porch. I read:
By this time there may be naught left of you but a whitening huddle of bones, surf bleached on the end of Wecanicut,—for I know well what meager fare are eiligugs' eggs and barnacles. However, I take the chance of finding at least one of you alive, and address you fraternally as a companion in distress.
I am myself stranded on a cheerless island where, against my will, I am kept captive—for how long a time I cannot guess. I was brought here at night, only forty-eight hours ago, and landed from a vessel which almost immediately departed whence it had come, into the darkness. My captors left me to go with the vessel, the chief of them threatening to return every week to torment me unless I obeyed his slightest command. I stand in great fear of this man, who is tall and bearded, for he brings with him instruments of torture and bottles containing, without doubt, poison.
Can you imagine my joy when, tottering down the beach this morning, supporting my frame upon two sticks, I beheld your bottle cast up on the sands? Now, thought I, I can unburden myself to these three unfortunate men, obviously in even greater distress than my own, and we can, perhaps, ease each other's monotonous maroonity. Scholars, too, I perceive, you to be,—witness the Latin following your signatures. Ah well, Grata superveniet quae non sperabitur hora, as the poet so truly says, and I cannot express to you how eager, how happy I am, in the thought of communicating with some one other than the natives of this desolate isle. These inhabitants, though friendly on the whole, are uncouth and barbaric. They spend their entire time fishing from boats which they build themselves, or squatting beside their huts mending their fishing implements.
The good soul with whom I am lodging is calling me to my scanty repast. In the rude language of the place she tells me that there is "Krabss al ad an dunny." How can I live long, I ask, on such fare?
P. S. My address—mail reaches me from time to time, by aforesaid vessel—is P. O. Box 14, Blue Harbor, Me. ME stands for Mid Equator, but the abbreviation is sufficient. Blue Harbor is my own literal translation of the native Bluar Boor. Box 14 refers to the native system of delivering messages. P. O. has, I think, something to do with the P. & O. steamers, which, however, do not very often touch here.
"I told you it would go around the world!" Greg said, when I had finished, and Jerry and I were staring at each other.
"Well!" Jerry said at last. "What luck!"
"I should rather say so," I said; "suppose a fisherman had found it, or no one at all."
"Bless his old heart," said Jerry, taking the letter.
I wanted to know why "old."
"He must be ancient if he has to totter along on two sticks," Jerry said. "Besides, he has a stately, professorish sort of style. Do you suppose he really does want us to write to him?"
"Of course he does," Greg said; "he tells us to often enough. Think of being alone out there with savages, and that bearded chief coming with poison bottles and all."
"Shut up, Greg," said Jerry; "you don't understand. There's more in this than meets the eye, Chris. I did n't get on to this crab salad business when you read it."
Neither had I; in fact, I had n't got on to it until Jerry said it in proper English.
"He's a good sort, poor old dear," I said. "Why do you suppose they keep him out there?"
"He's there of his own free will, right enough," Jerry said.
But I did n't think so.
We were still confabbing over the letter, and explaining bits to Greg, who was hopelessly mystified, when Mother came out to transplant some columbine that had wandered into the lawn. We did a quick secret consultation and then decided to let her in on the Castaway. So we bolted after her and took away the trowel and showed her the letter. She read it through twice, and then said:
"Oh, Ailsa must hear this, and Father!"
But what we wanted to know was whether or not we might write to the Castaway, because we did n't quite want to without letting her know about it. She laughed some more and said, "yes, we might," and that he was "a dear," which was what we thought.
We decided that we would write immediately, so Jerry dashed off to Father's study and got two sheets of nice thin paper with "17 Luke Street" at the top in humpy green letters, and I borrowed Aunt Ailsa's fountain-pen, which turned out to be empty. I might have known it, for they always are empty when you need them most. Jerry, like a goose, filled it over the clean paper we were going to use for the letter, and it slobbered blue ink all over the top sheet. But the under one was n't hurt, and we thought one page full would be all we could write, anyway. We took the things out to the porch table, and Greg held down the corner of the paper so it would n't flap while I wrote. Jerry sat on the arm of my chair and thought so excitedly that it jiggled me.
But minutes went on, and the fountain pen began to ooze from being too full, and none of us could think of a single thing to say.
"If we just write to him ourselves,—in our own form, I mean," Jerry said, "it'll be stupid. And I don't feel maroonish here on the porch. We'll have to wait till we go to Wecanicut again, and write from there."
I felt somehow the way Jerry did, so we put away the things again and went out under the hemlock tree to talk about the Castaway. Greg did n't come, and we supposed he'd gone to feed a tame toad he had that year, or something. The toad lived under the syringa bush beside the gate, and Greg insisted that it came out when he whistled for it, but it never would perform when we went on purpose to watch it, so I don't know whether it did or not.
Under the hemlock is one of the best places in the garden for councils and such. The branches quite touch the grass, and when you creep under them you are in a dark, golden sort of tent, crackley and sweet-smelling. You can slither pine-needles through your fingers as you discuss, too, and it helps you to think. We thought for quite a long time, and then I got out the letter and spread it down in one of the wavy patches of sunlight, and we read it again.
"Did you really think anybody'd find it?" Jerry asked suddenly, and I told him I had n't thought so.
"Neither did I," he said; "let alone such a jolly old soul. Why, he'd be better than Aunt on a picnic."
"I do wonder why he has to stay there," I said.
"Perhaps he's a fugitive from justice," Jerry suggested; "or perhaps he's a prisoner and the bearded person comes out with Spanish Inquisition things to make him confess his horrible crime."
"He sounds like a person who'd done a horrible crime, does n't he!" I said in scorn.
"Well, then," said Jerry, who really has the most inspired ideas for plots, "perhaps he's an innocent old man whose wicked nephews want to frighten him into changing his will, leaving an enormous fortune to them. And they're keeping him on the island till he'll do it."
"Well, whatever it is," I said, "I don't think he's awfully happy somehow, and it's nice of him to write such a gorgeous thing."
So we both decided that whether he was staying on the island of his own free will, or in bondage, in any case it must be frightfully dull for him and that our letter ought to be interesting and cheerful.
Just then the hemlock branches thrashed apart and Greg crawled under with pine-needles in his hair. He sat back on his heels and blinked at us, because he'd just come out of the sunlight.
"I thought somebody ought to write to the Bottle Man," he said, "so I did."
"Well, I never!" Jerry said.
Greg fished up a bent piece of paper from inside his jumper and handed it to me.
"You can see it," he said, "but not Jerry."
"As if I'd want to!" Jerry said; but he did, fearfully.
Greg is the most unexpected person I ever knew. He's always doing things like that, when everyone else has given up.
I spread his paper out on top of the other letter, and he sprawled down beside me, all ready to explain with his finger. What with his dreadfully bad writing and the sunlight moving off the paper all the time as the branches swayed, it took me ever so long to read the thing. This is what it was:
To-day we got your leter wich surprised us very much. Although I kept hopeing and hopeing some body would find the bottle. We are not so distresed now because we were picked up and now have toast and other things beter than barnicles. I mesured from here to the equater on the big map and it is an aufuly far way for the bottle to go. Only I thought it would. I am sorry you are so imprisined on the iland and please dont let the cheif with the beard poisen you because we would like to hear from you agan. If there is tresure on that iland I should think you could look for it and it would be exiting. But prehaps there is none. We hope there is some on Wecanicut. But it is hard to know sirtainly. Chris and Jerry are going to do a leter. But I thought I would first. I hope the saviges will be frendly allways.
Your respecfull comrade,
P. S. None of us are Bones yet.
"Will it do?" Greg asked anxiously, when I folded it up. His eyes grow very dark when he's anxious, and they were perfectly inky now. You never would have guessed that they were really blue.
"It'll do splendidly," I said, for I did think the Castaway man would like Greg's letter tremendously.
"Better let me see it, my lad," said Jerry, rolling over among the pine-cones and sitting up.
Greg got his precious letter with a snatch and a squeak, and scurried off with it. I pitched Jerry back on to the pine-needles, because I knew he'd never let the thing go if he saw it.
"Oh, let him send it," I said. "It's perfectly all right, and it will do the Bottle Man heaps of good."
But Jerry growled about "beastly scrawls" and was n't pleased with me until supper-time.
Somehow we all began calling our island person the "Bottle Man" after Greg did, for it seemed as good a name as any for him, seeing that we did n't know his real one. We read the letter from him after supper to Aunt Ailsa, and she laughed and liked it, and so did Father. We also asked Father what the Latin meant, and he made a funny face and said he'd forgotten such things, but then he looked at it again and told us it meant something like this:
"The happy hour shall come, all the more appreciated because it comes unexpectedly."
So we went to bed thinking about our poor old Bottle Man consoling himself out there on his island with Latin quotations.