A Captain at Fifteen by Jules Verne Part I Chapter 5

"S. V."

Meanwhile, the "Pilgrim" had continued her course, making for the east as much as possible. This lamentable continuance of calms did not cease to trouble Captain Hull--not that he was uneasy about two or three weeks' delay in a passage from New Zealand to Valparaiso, but because of the extra fatigue which this delay might bring to his lady passenger.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Weldon did not complain, and philosophically took her misfortune in patience.

That same day, February 2d, toward evening, the wreck was lost sight of.

Captain Hull was troubled, in the first place, to accommodate Tom and his companions as conveniently as possible. The crew's quarters on the "Pilgrim," built on the deck in the form of a "roufle," would be too small to hold them. An arrangement was then made to lodge them under the forecastle. Besides, these honest men, accustomed to rude labors, could not be hard to please, and with fine weather, warm and salubrious, this sleeping-place ought to suffice for the whole passage.

The life on board, shaken for a moment from its monotony by this incident, then went on as usual.

Tom, Austin, Bat, Acteon, and Hercules would indeed wish to make themselves useful. But with these constant winds, the sails once set, there was nothing more to do. Meanwhile, when there was a veering about, the old black and his companions hastened to give a hand to the crew, and it must be confessed that when the colossal Hercules hauled some rope, they were aware of it. This vigorous negro, six feet high, brought in a tackle all by himself.

It was joy for little Jack to look at this giant. He was not afraid of him, and when Hercules hoisted him up in his arms, as if he were only a cork baby, there were cries of joy to go on.

"Lift me very high," said little Jack.

"There, Master Jack!" replied Hercules.

"Am I very heavy?"

"I do not even feel you."

"Well, higher still! To the end of your arm!" And Hercules, holding the child's two little feet in his large hand, walked him about like a gymnast in a circus. Jack saw himself, tall, taller, which amused him very much. He even tried to make himself heavy--which the colossus did not perceive at all.

Dick Sand and Hercules, they were two friends for little Jack. He was not slow in making himself a third--that was Dingo.

It has been said that Dingo was not a sociable dog. Doubtless that held good, because the society of the "Waldeck" did not suit it. On board the "Pilgrim" it was quite another thing. Jack probably knew how to touch the fine animal's heart. The latter soon took pleasure in playing with the little boy, whom this play pleased. It was soon discovered that Dingo was one of those dogs who have a particular taste for children. Besides, Jack did it no harm. His greatest pleasure was to transform Dingo into a swift steed, and it is safe to affirm that a horse of this kind is much superior to a pasteboard quadruped, even when it has wheels to its feet. So Jack galloped bare-back on the dog, which let him do it willingly, and, in truth, Jack was no heavier to it than the half of a jockey to a race-horse.

But what a break each day in the stock of sugar in the store-room!

Dingo soon became a favorite with the whole crew. Alone, Negoro continued to avoid any encounter with the animal, whose antipathy was always as strong as it was inexplicable.

Meanwhile, little Jack had not neglected Dick Sand, his friend of old, for Dingo. All the time that was unclaimed by his duties on board, the novice passed with the little boy.

Mrs. Weldon, it is needless to say, always regarded this intimacy with the most complete satisfaction.

One day, February 6th, she spoke of Dick to Captain Hull, and the captain praised the young novice in the highest terms.

"That boy," he said to Mrs. Weldon, "will be a good seaman some day, I'll guarantee. He has truly a passion for the sea, and by this passion he makes up for the theoretical parts of the calling which he has not yet learned. What he already knows is astonishing, when we think of the short time he has had to learn."

"It must be added," replied Mrs. Weldon, "that he is also an excellent person, a true boy, very superior to his age, and who has never merited any blame since we have known him."

"Yes, he is a good young man," continued the captain, "justly loved and appreciated by all."

"This cruise finished," said Mrs. Weldon, "I know that my husband's intention is to have him follow a course of navigation, so that, he may afterwards obtain a captain's commission."

"And Mr. Weldon is right," replied Captain Hull. "Dick Sand will one day do honor to the American marine."

"This poor orphan commenced life sadly," observed Mrs. Weldon. "He has been in a hard school!"

"Doubtless, Mrs. Weldon; but the lessons have not been lost on him. He has learned that he must make his own way in this world, and he is in a fair way to do it."

"Yes, the way of duty!"

"Look at him now, Mrs. Weldon," continued Captain Hull. "He is at the helm, his eye fixed on the point of the foresail. No distraction on the part of this young novice, as well as no lurch to the ship. Dick Sand has already the confidence of an old steersman. A good beginning for a seaman. Our craft, Mrs. Weldon, is one of those in which it is necessary to begin very young. He who has not been a cabin-boy will never arrive at being a perfect seaman, at least in the merchant marine. Everything must be learned, and, consequently, everything must be at the same time instinctive and rational with the sailor--the resolution to grasp, as well as the skill to execute."

"Meanwhile, Captain Hull," replied Mrs. Weldon, "good officers are not lacking in the navy."

"No," replied Captain Hull; "but, in my opinion, the best have almost all begun their career as children, and, without speaking of Nelson and a few others, the worst are not those who began by being cabin-boys."

At that moment they saw Cousin Benedict springing up from the rear companion-way. As usual he was absorbed, and as little conscious of this world as the Prophet Elias will be when he returns to the earth.

Cousin Benedict began to walk about on the deck like an uneasy spirit, examining closely the interstices of the netting, rummaging under the hen-cages, putting his hand between the seams of the deck, there, where the pitch had scaled off.

"Ah! Cousin Benedict," asked Mrs. Weldon, "do you keep well?"

"Yes--Cousin Weldon--I am well, certainly--but I am in a hurry to get on land."

"What are you looking for under that bench, Mr. Benedict?" asked Captain Hull.

"Insects, sir," returned Cousin Benedict. "What do you expect me to look for, if not insects?"

"Insects! Faith, I must agree with you; but it is not at sea that you will enrich your collection."

"And why not, sir? It is not impossible to find on board some specimen of----"

"Cousin Benedict," said Mrs. Weldon, "do you then slander Captain Hull? His ship is so well kept, that you will return empty-handed from your hunt."

Captain Hull began to laugh.

"Mrs. Weldon exaggerates," replied he. "However, Mr. Benedict, I believe you will lose your time rummaging in our cabins."

"Ah! I know it well," cried Cousin Benedict, shrugging his shoulders. "I have had a good search----"

"But, in the 'Pilgrim's' hold," continued Captain Hull, "perhaps you will find some cockroaches--subjects of little interest, however."

"Of little interest, those nocturnal orthopters which have incurred the maledictions of Virgil and Horace!" retorted Cousin Benedict, standing up straight. "Of little interest, those near relations of the 'periplaneta orientalis' and of the American kakerlac, which inhabit----"

"Which infest!" said Captain Hull.

"Which reign on board!" retorted Cousin Benedict, fiercely.

"Amiable sovereignty!"

"Ah! you are not an entomologist, sir?"

Never at my own expense."

"Now, Cousin Benedict," said Mrs. Weldon, smiling, "do not wish us to be devoured for love of science."

"I wish, nothing, Cousin Weldon," replied, the fiery entomologist, "except to be able to add to my collection some rare subject which might do it honor."

"Are you not satisfied, then, with the conquests that you have made in New Zealand?"

"Yes, truly, Cousin Weldon. I have been rather fortunate in conquering one of those new staphylins which till now had only been found some hundreds of miles further, in New Caledonia."

At that moment Dingo, who was playing with Jack, approached Cousin Benedict, gamboling.

"Go away! go away!" said the latter, pushing off the animal.

"To love cockroaches and detest dogs!" cried Captain Hull. "Oh! Mr. Benedict!"

"A good dog, notwithstanding," said little Jack, taking Dingo's great head in his small hands.

"Yes. I do not say no," replied Cousin Benedict. "But what do you want? This devil of an animal has not realized the hopes I conceived on meeting it."

"Ah! my goodness!" cried Mrs. Weldon, "did you, then, hope to be able to classify it in the order of the dipters or the hymenopters?"

"No," replied Cousin Benedict, seriously. "But is it not true that this Dingo, though it be of the New Zealand race, was picked up on the western coast of Africa?"

"Nothing is more true," replied Mrs. Weldon, "and Tom had often heard the captain of the 'Waldeck' say so."

"Well, I had thought--I had hoped--that this dog would have brought away some specimens of hemipteras peculiar to the African fauna."

"Merciful heavens!" cried Mrs. Weldon.

"And that perhaps," added Cousin Benedict, "some penetrating or irritating flea--of a new species----"

"Do you understand, Dingo?" said Captain Hull. "Do you understand, my dog? You have failed in all your duties!"

"But I have examined it well," added the entomologist, with an accent of deep regret. "I have not been able to find a single insect."

"Which you would have immediately and mercilessly put to death, I hope!" cried Captain Hull.

"Sir," replied Cousin Benedict, dryly, "learn that Sir John Franklin made a scruple of killing the smallest insect, be it a mosquito, whose attacks are otherwise formidable as those of a flea; and meanwhile you will not hesitate to allow, that Sir John Franklin was a seaman who was as good as the next."

"Surely," said Captain Hull, bowing.

"And one day, after being frightfully devoured by a dipter, he blew and sent it away, saying to it, without even using _thou_ or _thee_: 'Go! the world is large enough for you and for me!'"

"Ah!" ejaculated Captain Hull.

"Yes, sir."

"Well, Mr. Benedict," retorted Captain Hull, "another had said that long before Sir John Franklin."


"Yes; and that other was Uncle Toby."

"An entomologist?" asked Cousin Benedict, quickly.

"No! Sterne's Uncle Toby, and that worthy uncle pronounced precisely the same words, while setting free a mosquito that annoyed him, but which he thought himself at liberty to _thee_ and _thou_: 'Go, poor devil,' he said to it, 'the world is large enough to contain us, thee and me!'"

"An honest man, that Uncle Toby!" replied Cousin Benedict. "Is he dead?"

"I believe so, indeed," retorted Captain Hull, gravely, "as he has never existed!"

And each began to laugh, looking at Cousin Benedict.

Thus, then, in these conversations, and many others, which invariably bore on some point of entomological science, whenever Cousin Benedict took part, passed away long hours of this navigation against contrary winds. The sea always fine, but winds which obliged the schooner to tack often. The "Pilgrim" made very little headway toward the east--the breeze was so feeble; and they longed to reach those parts where the prevailing winds would be more favorable.

It must be stated here that Cousin Benedict had endeavored to initiate the young novice into the mysteries of entomology. But Dick Sand had shown himself rather refractory to these advances. For want of better company the savant had fallen back on the negroes, who comprehended nothing about it. Tom, Acteon, Bat, and Austin had even finished by deserting the class, and the professor found himself reduced to Hercules alone, who seemed to him to have some natural disposition to distinguish a parasite from a thysanuran.

So the gigantic black lived in the world of coleopteras, carnivorous insects, hunters, gunners, ditchers, cicindelles, carabes, sylphides, moles, cockchafers, horn-beetles, tenebrions, mites, lady-birds, studying all Cousin Benedict's collection, not but the latter trembled on seeing his frail specimens in Hercules' great hands, which were hard and strong as a vise. But the colossal pupil listened so quietly to the professor's lessons that it was worth risking something to give them.

While Cousin Benedict worked in that manner, Mrs. Weldon did not leave little Jack entirely unoccupied; She taught him to read and to write. As to arithmetic, it was his friend Dick Sand who inculcated the first elements.

At the age of five, one is still only a little child, and is perhaps better instructed by practical games than by theoretical lessons necessarily a little arduous.

Jack learned to read, not in a primer, but by means of movable letters, printed in red on cubes of wood. He amused himself by arranging the blocks so as to form words. Sometimes Mrs. Weldon took these cubes and composed a word; then she disarranged them, and it was for Jack to replace them in the order required.

The little boy liked this manner of learning to read very much. Each day he passed some hours, sometimes in the cabin, sometimes on the deck, in arranging and disarranging the letters of his alphabet.

Now, one day this led to an incident so extraordinary, so unexpected, that it is necessary to relate with some detail.

It was on the morning of February 9th, Jack, half-lying on the deck, was amusing himself forming a word which old Tom was to put together again, after the letters had been mixed. Tom, with his hand over his eyes so as not to cheat, as he agreed, would see nothing, and did see nothing of the work of the little boy.

Of these different letters, about fifty in number, some were large, others small. Besides, some of these cubes carried a figure, which taught the child to form numbers as well as to form words.

These cubes were arranged on the deck, and little Jack was taking sometimes one, sometimes another, to make a word--a truly great labor.

Now, for same moments, Dingo was moving round the young child, when suddenly it stopped. Its eyes became fixed, its right paw was raised, its tail wagged convulsively. Then, suddenly throwing itself on one of the cubes, it seized it in its mouth and laid it on the deck a few steps from Jack.

This cube bore a large letter--the letter S.

"Dingo, well Dingo!" cried the little boy, who at first was afraid that his S was swallowed by the dog.

But Dingo had returned, and, beginning the same performance again, it seized another cube, and went to lay it near the first.

This second cube was a large V.

This time Jack gave a cry.

At this cry, Mrs. Weldon, Captain Hull, and the young novice, who were walking on the deck, assembled. Little Jack then told them what had just passed.

Dingo knew its letters; Dingo knew how to read! That was very certain, that! Jack had seen it!

Dick Sand wanted to go and take the two cubes, to restore them to his friend Jack, but Dingo showed him its teeth.

However, the novice succeeded in gaining possession of the two cubes, and he replaced them in the set.

Dingo advanced again, seized again the same two letters, and carried them to a distance. This time its two paws lay on them; it seemed decided to guard them at all hazards. As to the other letters of the alphabet, it did not seem as if it had any knowledge of them.

"That is a curious thing," said Mrs. Weldon.

"It is, in fact, very singular," replied Captain Hull, who was looking attentively at the two letters.

"S. V.," said Mrs. Weldon.

"S. V.," repeated Captain Hull. "But those are precisely the letters which are on Dingo's collar!"

Then, all at once, turning to the old black: "Tom," he asked, "have you not told me that this dog only belonged to the captain of the 'Waldeck' for a short time?"

"In fact, sir," replied Tom, "Dingo was only on board two years at the most."

"And have you not added that the captain of the 'Waldeck' had picked up this dog on the western coast of Africa?"

"Yes, sir, in the neighborhood of the mouth of the Congo. I have often heard the captain say so."

"So," asked Captain Hull, "it has never been known to whom this dog had belonged, nor whence it came?"

"Never, sir. A dog found is worse than a child! That has no papers, and, more, it cannot explain."

Captain Hull was silent, and reflected.

"Do those two letters, then, awake some remembrance?" Mrs. Weldon asked Captain Hull, after leaving him to his reflections for some moments.

"Yes, Mrs. Weldon, a remembrance, or rather a coincidence at least singular."


"Those two letters might well have a meaning, and fix for us the fate of an intrepid traveler."

"What do you mean?" demanded Mrs. Weldon.

"Here is what I mean, Mrs. Weldon. In 1871--consequently two years ago--a French traveler set out, under the auspices of the Paris Geographical Society, with the intention of crossing Africa from the west to the east. His point of departure was precisely the mouth of the Congo. His point of arrival would be as near as possible to Cape Deldago, at the mouths of the Rovuma, whose course he would descend. Now, this French traveler was named Samuel Vernon."

"Samuel Vernon!" repeated Mrs. Weldon.

"Yes, Mrs. Weldon; and those two names begin precisely by those two letters which Dingo has chosen among all the others, and which are engraved on its collar."

"Exactly," replied Mrs. Weldon. "And that traveler----"

"That traveler set out," replied Captain Hull, "and has not been heard of since his departure."

"Never?" said the novice.

"Never," repeated Captain Hull.

"What do you conclude from it?" asked Mrs. Weldon.

"That, evidently, Samuel Vernon has not been able to reach the eastern coast of Africa, whether he may have been made prisoner by the natives, whether death may have struck him on the way."

"And then this dog?"

"This dog would have belonged to him; and, more fortunate than its master, if my hypothesis is true, it would have been able to return to the Congo coast, because it was there, at the time when these events must have taken place, that it was picked up by the captain of the 'Waldeck.'"

"But," observed Mrs. Weldon, "do you know if this French traveler was accompanied on his departure by a dog? Is it not a mere supposition on your part?"

"It is only a supposition, indeed, Mrs. Weldon," replied Captain Hull. "But what is certain is, that Dingo knows these two letters S and V, which are precisely the initials of the two names of the French traveler. Now, under what circumstances this animal would learn to distinguish them is what I cannot explain; but, I repeat it, it very certainly knows them; and look, it pushes them with its paw, and seems to invite us to read them with it."

In fact, they could not misunderstand Dingo's intention.

"Then was Samuel Vernon alone when he left the sea-coast of the Congo?" ask Dick Sand.

"That I know not," replied Captain Hull. "However, it is probable that he would take a native escort."

At that moment Negoro, leaving his post, showed himself on the deck. At first no one remarked his presence, and could not observe the singular look he cast on the dog when he perceived the two letters over which the animal seem to mount guard. But Dingo, having perceived the master-cook, began to show signs of the most extreme fury.

Negoro returned immediately to the crew's quarters, not without a menacing gesture at the dog's skill having escaped him.

"There is some mystery there," murmured Captain Hull, who had lost none of this little scene.

"But, sir," said the novice, "is it not very astonishing that a dog should know the letters of the alphabet?"

"No!" cried little Jack. "Mama has often told me the story of a dog which knew how to read and write, and even play dominoes, like a real schoolmaster!"

"My dear child," replied Mrs. Weldon, smiling, "that dog, whose name was Munito, was not a savant, as you suppose. If I may believe what has been told me about it, Munito would not have been able to distinguish the letters which served to compose the words. But its master, a clever American, having remarked what fine hearing Munito had, applied himself to cultivating that sense, and to draw from it some very curious effects."

"How did he set to work, Mrs. Weldon?" asked Dick Sand, whom the history interested almost as much as little Jack.

"In this way, my friend." When Munito was 'to appear' before the public, letters similar to these were displayed on a table. On that table the poodle walked about, waiting till a word was proposed, whether in a loud voice or in a low voice. Only, one essential condition was that its master should know the word."

"And, in the absence of its master--" said the novice.

"The dog could have done nothing," replied Mrs. Weldon, "and here is the reason. The letters spread out on the table, Munito walked about through this alphabet. When it arrived before the letter which it should choose to form the word required, it stopped; but if it stopped it was because it heard the noise--imperceptible to all others--of a toothpick that the American snapped in his pocket. That noise was the signal for Munito to take the letter and arrange it in suitable order."

"And that was all the secret?" cried Dick Sand.

"That was the whole secret," replied Mrs. Weldon. "It is very simple, like all that is done in the matter of prestidigitation. In case of the American's absence, Munito would be no longer Munito. I am, then, astonished, his master not being there--if, indeed, the traveler, Samuel Vernon, has ever been its master--that Dingo could have recognized those two letters."

"In fact," replied Captain Hull, "it is very astonishing. But, take notice, there are only two letters in question here, two particular letters, and not a word chosen by chance. After all, that dog which rang at the door of a convent to take possession of the plate intended for the poor passers-by, that other which commissioned at the same time with one of its kind, to turn the spit for two days each, and which refused to fill that office when its turn had not come, those two dogs, I say, advanced farther than Dingo into that domain of intelligence reserved for man. Besides, we are in the presence of an inscrutable fact. Of all the letters of that alphabet, Dingo has only chosen these two: S and V. The others it does not even seem to know. Therefore we must conclude that, for a reason which escapes us, its attention has been especially drawn to those two letters."

"Ah! Captain Hull," replied the young novice, "if Dingo could speak! Perhaps he would tell us what those two letters signify, and why it has kept a tooth ready for our head cook."

"And what a tooth!" replied Captain Hull, as Dingo, opening its mouth, showed its formidable fangs.