THE SEVENTEENTH CHAPTER
THE OCEAN GOSSIPS
RIGHT away an axe was found. And the Doctor soon chopped a hole in the door big enough to clamber through.
At first he could see nothing at all, it was so dark inside. So he struck a match.
The room was quite small; no window; the ceiling, low. For furniture there was only one little stool. All round the room big barrels stood against the walls, fastened at the bottom so they wouldn't tumble with the rolling of the ship; and above the barrels, pewter jugs of all sizes hung from wooden pegs. There was a strong, winey smell. And in the middle of the floor sat a little boy, about eight years old, crying bitterly.
"I declare, it is the pirates' rum-room!" said Jip in a whisper.
"Yes. Very rum!" said Gub-Gub. "The smell makes me giddy."
The little boy seemed rather frightened to find a man standing there before him and all those animals staring in through the hole in the broken door. But as soon as he saw John Dolittle's face by the light of the match, he stopped crying and got up.
"You aren't one of the pirates, are you?" he asked.
And when the Doctor threw back his head and laughed long and loud, the little boy smiled too and came and took his hand.
"You laugh like a friend," he said—"not like a pirate. Could you tell me where my uncle is?"
"I am afraid I can't," said the Doctor. "When did you see him last?"
"It was the day before yesterday," said the boy. "I and my uncle were out fishing in our little boat, when the pirates came and caught us. They sunk our fishing-boat and brought us both on to this ship. They told my uncle that they wanted him to be a pirate like them—for he was clever at sailing a ship in all weathers. But he said he didn't want to be a pirate, because killing people and stealing was no work for a good fisherman to do. Then the leader, Ben Ali, got very angry and gnashed his teeth, and said they would throw my uncle into the sea if he didn't do as they said. They sent me downstairs; and I heard the noise of a fight going on above. And when they let me come up again next day, my uncle was nowhere to be seen. I asked the pirates where he was; but they wouldn't tell me. I am very much afraid they threw him into the sea and drowned him."
And the little boy began to cry again.
"Well now—wait a minute," said the Doctor. "Don't cry. Let's go and have tea in the dining-room, and we'll talk it over. Maybe your uncle is quite safe all the time. You don't KNOW that he was drowned, do you? And that's something. Perhaps we can find him for you. First we'll go and have tea—with strawberry-jam; and then we will see what can be done."
All the animals had been standing around listening with great curiosity. And when they had gone into the ship's dining-room and were having tea, Dab-Dab came up behind the Doctor's chair and whispered.
"Ask the porpoises if the boy's uncle was drowned—they'll know."
"All right," said the Doctor, taking a second piece of bread-and-jam.
"What are those funny, clicking noises you are making with your tongue?" asked the boy.
"Oh, I just said a couple of words in duck-language," the Doctor answered. "This is Dab-Dab, one of my pets."
"I didn't even know that ducks had a language," said the boy. "Are all these other animals your pets, too? What is that strange-looking thing with two heads?"
"Sh!" the Doctor whispered. "That is the pushmi-pullyu. Don't let him see we're talking about him—he gets so dreadfully embarrassed.... Tell me, how did you come to be locked up in that little room?"
"The pirates shut me in there when they were going off to steal things from another ship. When I heard some one chopping on the door, I didn't know who it could be. I was very glad to find it was you. Do you think you will be able to find my uncle for me?"
"Well, we are going to try very hard," said the Doctor. "Now what was your uncle like to look at?"
"He had red hair," the boy answered—"very red hair, and the picture of an anchor tattooed on his arm. He was a strong man, a kind uncle and the best sailor in the South Atlantic. His fishing-boat was called The Saucy Sally—a cutter-rigged sloop."
"What's 'cutterigsloop'?" whispered Gub-Gub, turning to Jip.
"Sh!—That's the kind of a ship the man had," said Jip. "Keep still, can't you?"
"Oh," said the pig, "is that all? I thought it was something to drink."
So the Doctor left the boy to play with the animals in the dining-room, and went upstairs to look for passing porpoises.
And soon a whole school came dancing and jumping through the water, on their way to Brazil.
When they saw the Doctor leaning on the rail of his ship, they came over to see how he was getting on.
And the Doctor asked them if they had seen anything of a man with red hair and an anchor tattooed on his arm.
"Do you mean the master of The Saucy Sally?" asked the porpoises.
"Yes," said the Doctor. "That's the man. Has he been drowned?"
"His fishing-sloop was sunk," said the porpoises—"for we saw it lying on the bottom of the sea. But there was nobody inside it, because we went and looked."
"His little nephew is on the ship with me here," said the Doctor. "And he is terribly afraid that the pirates threw his uncle into the sea. Would you be so good as to find out for me, for sure, whether he has been drowned or not?"
"Oh, he isn't drowned," said the porpoises. "If he were, we would be sure to have heard of it from the deep-sea Decapods. We hear all the salt-water news. The shell-fish call us 'The Ocean Gossips.' No—tell the little boy we are sorry we do not know where his uncle is; but we are quite certain he hasn't been drowned in the sea."
So the Doctor ran downstairs with the news and told the nephew, who clapped his hands with happiness. And the pushmi-pullyu took the little boy on his back and gave him a ride round the dining-room table; while all the other animals followed behind, beating the dish-covers with spoons, pretending it was a parade.