Life Among The Savages, Part 4.
As I am an inquisitive person, open of mind and dedicated to the edification of the self, and also a man both drawn to and experienced in worldly travel, it should be of little surprise that I have on numerous occasions found myself in novel situations, where my hard-won knowledge and skills do not always enjoy direct and useful application to the predicaments at hand. It is at such times that I must rely on my wits alone, inducing the appropriate course of action as I go, as every path is thorny and unfamiliar. Thusfar, my mind had been sufficient to the task, and though I rarely escaped without some minor abrasions to either body or dignity (and the prideful wounds are always the most stinging, are they not?), I held myself intact enough to move on to other scenarios of equal or greater interest, always tallying the lessons learned and blessings granted, and offering up a silent prayer to Providence for the expansion of my wisdom and enrichment of my life that even the darkest of times can evoke.
Therefore, even as I felt an uneasiness begin to flutter in my chest as the scratching within the widow’s cabinet became not only more insistent, but more rhythmic, I welcomed this new happenstance and its accompanying fear as an opportunity, rather than cursing it as misfortune. “Let this mysterious box be an enlightening candle, not the torch that will ignite the brambles at my feet as I am wrongly burned at the stake for witchcraft!” I thought, and perused my surroundings for avenues of escape.
Naturally, my first thought was the door to the compartment. I edged toward the door, the scratching seeming to follow my movements, as if whatever was housed inside the great box could sense my presence, and despite the awkward angle, I twisted the knob in order to gain egress. Unfortunately, the door was locked. Jones, in his haste and chagrin over the matter of my accommodations, must have locked it by mistake when he left to retrieve bedclothes for me. I moved away from the door again and studied the porthole, which afforded me a commanding view of the open sea. Most of the window was also blocked by the cabinet; the narrow rectangular opening encompassed the upper part of the entire chamber wall, and though only a foot and a half tall, I could easily have fit through the frame, were I able to break the glass, criss-crossed with leaded strips, much like a stained glass window, though lacking any ornament. The glass itself did not appear sturdier than normal, but I doubted if I could achieve enough leverage or range in the cramped space to prise it open or swing a bludgeon and shatter it. Also, I had no bludgeon. Thwarted by the limits of the room and my own flexibility, I listened to the increasingly violent scratching as it coruscated through the cabinet walls, and as I intensified my contemplation of my cramped state, I acted in the only way I could conceive: I scratched a response to the inhabitant of the cabinet.
Using my fingernails (as they were the only scratching tool I had access to at the time), I matched the cabinet’s interior scraping in both intensity and frequency. This had the immediate effect of causing the cabinet to go silent. I stopped scratching as soon the sounds inside the cabinet ceased. When the scratching started again, I echoed the sounds. The cabinet and I carried on in this fashion for several minutes, slowly inching toward some crude form of communication, though what I would be saying to whom-or-whatever was inside this dark and massive enclosure was as much unknown to me as the nature of my fellow conversant. After a while, we were exchanging rapid series of staccato scratches, each response more intricate and varied than the last. We were building a rich and complex language entirely though percussive sounds transmitted through wood, and though I had little idea what I was saying in our new tongue, I felt I was making a true connexion with the inhabitant of the widow’s cabinet. Just as I was beginning to enjoy the process of scratching responses on the surface of the wood, my latest series of scratches (which I hoped would be interpreted as “Perhaps we could attempt some other form of communication, as my vocabulary in this scratch-language is not only limited, but entirely conjectural”) was met with a thunderous and singular pounding, one blow that startled me and made leap away from the cabinet. Due to the limited space, I hit the back of my head against the wall. I reached out to scratch an inquiry into the reason for the change in tone, or an apology if I could make one, but at my slightest contact with the cabinet, the pounding continued and intensified. the blows became so intense that the cabinet itself began to move towards me, a few inches at a time, rapidly decreasing the available space in the room with alarming speed. I called out for help, but was not sure if I could be heard over the cabinet’s pounding. I turned my feet so they were parallel to the wall; there was no longer space to stand comfortably. I pushed firmly against the box and asked the occupant to calm itself so as not to crush me, but the inhabitant of the box either would not heed my cries or was not fluent in English, and the box continued its advance. The box pressed forward and I felt its weight against my legs and chest. I pushed back, but to no avail. The widow’s parcel inched forward beneath blow after heavy blow, and I began to feel the air being forced from my lungs. Then, the sound of voices on the other side of the door. The pounding stopped. Someone fumbled with the door handle and the box moved –or should I say shrank — back to its original position against the far wall. The door opened, revealing Jones and the Captain.
“Thank G-d!” I exclaimed. “You arrived just in time!”
“What were you doing in here?” asked the Captain. Jones puffed on his pipe, implacable.
“The widow’s parcel–” I gasped, as my breath returned “– the cabinet–”
“I told you not to touch that,” Jones said.
I attempted to explain what had occurred in their absence, the strange sounds, the movement of the widow’s cabinet, its attempt to crush me, but in the wake of the experience, my account was both rushed and panicky, and inspired little confidence in the two well-salted seamen who looked on from the hall.
“Oh, my boy, you’ve been traumatized!” the captain said, and reached out for me, but Jones swatted his arm down. After an angry yet sheepish look, Stagg turned back to me and said “But of course you’re talking nonsense. We’ve just left port, the water’s not rolling yet. And the widow’s… parcel is just a box. Stone dead! Ha!” Here the Captain slapped the dark wood of the cabinet, and the cabinet gave no response. Stagg turned to Jones. “Have we found that crowbar yet?”
“Alas, no sir.”
“This is ridiculous. What kind of ship has only one crowbar on board?”
“Your ship, sir.”
The Captain grunted. He turned back to me. “Turner’s moved most of the potatoes, so you’ll be able to stay in that cabin and not…” the Captain looked to the widow’s parcel “…here. Again, I apologize for the confusion.”
Having regained the majority of my composure, I assured the Captain that there was no reason for such profuse apologetics. “However,” I continued, reminded of an related matter, “I was wondering if my trunk had been brought aboard. Some of your men retrieved it from my boarding house last night, and I wanted to make sure my possessions had been loaded safely. Obviously, I should have asked as soon as I boarded myself, but I was distracted by the flurry of events that occurred just as I walked up the gang plank and immediately thereafter, not to mention the enchanting thrill of once again being aboard a seafaring vessel, and enamored both of the circumstance and –”
Captain Stagg chuckled and raised a hand to pause my explanation. “I’m sure your trunk has been carefully stowed, with the greatest concern for its contents. Correct, Mr. Jones?” The first mate shrugged. Once more, the captain grunted. “Show him the room. Then find his trunk. Then get me my crowbar.” The Captain smiled briefly and strode off toward the stairs to the deck. Jones stepped away from the door so that I could edge past him into the corridor. Once clear of the room, Jones shut and locked the door to the room containing the widow’s parcel.
“I tried to exit the room after you left, Mr. Jones, but the door was shut fast,” I told him.
“Is that so,” Jones said.
“Perhaps it was stuck, or suffered some mechanical failure.”
“Or perhaps you might have locked the door on accident.”
“Anything is possible. Here is your room. Again.” Jones opened the door to the third cabin. Turner was gone, as were a sizable portion of the potatoes, but substantial piles of the tubers remained, and some (though not all) of the absent potatoes had been replaced with other root vegetables, including turnips. Still, the space was lavish compared to the room that contained the widow’s cabinet, and a large quantity of root vegetables seemed benevolent in comparison to the looming shape in the next room, so I felt it best not to complain.
Jones handed me a bundle of blankets and said, “We’re still trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the bed for this compartment. As soon as we find it, I’ll let you know.”
I thanked Jones for his efforts, and he exhaled a long draught of tobacco smoke, then exited my room. I proceeded to arrange the potatoes and other vegetables into a suitable arrangement for sitting and perhaps sleeping, should the need arise.
With the danger subsided and my brain freed to contemplate matters beyond my own fleeting mortality, I found myself distracted by a perplexing riddle. Lay aside the contents of the ominous cabinet– how had Captain Stagg and his crew managed to enclose the widow’s parcel in this room in the first place, so that it could vex me with its prodigious bulk? The door and window were both too narrow to admit the parcel, and the ceiling and floor appeared to be intact and showed no sign of recent reconstruction that might indicate it was placed in the room after alterations to the room itself. Clearly, mysteries were thick around the widow’s parcel. Even the Captain was intrigued. Perhaps a direct entreaty to the widow von Kant herself (delicately phrased, of course) would illuminate matters. I would have license with the good widow that the Captain and his crew would not, due to their station, so she might feel more comfortable speaking with me about the contents of the great box. If nothing else, asking the widow would be an opportunity to engage her in conversation, an activity I very much anticipated.
In the meantime, seated among the potatoes, I breathed deeply for a few moments and purged any residual excitability from my person with a number of sustained and calculated sobs, so as to avoid any unseemly emotional outbursts while speaking with the winsome Sieglinde von Kant.